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Sunday 11th May 2014
To build climate resilience cities must assess diverse drivers of vulnerability
Cities Contributor: Diane Archer

As the most densely populated places on Earth, cities and towns concentrate risk from climatic events such as floods, storms and heat waves. But that doesn’t mean risk is spread evenly across the populations that live there. Urban centres are complex systems and simple ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy responses will not be enough.

What factors decide how vulnerable someone living in a city is to the impacts of climate change, or how they become more resilient? What makes some policy responses more effective than others? Three new studies from Vietnam, which IIED has supported through the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, provide answers to such questions.

Understanding vulnerability and adaptive responses

The first study examined heat stress among outdoor workers in Da Nang, Vietnam’s biggest seaport and fourth largest city. Periods of extreme heat are becoming more frequent but few of the city’s outdoor workers know how to protect themselves from overheating, and their employers rarely provide them with clothing or other measures to limit their exposure. Many workers felt compelled to continue working even when they suffered from heat-related symptoms, such as headaches or dizziness, because they needed the money.

The study showed that female street vendors were most vulnerable to heat stress. People’s access to health care services or social support also affected the level of risk they faced. By identifying which groups of workers are most vulnerable to heat stress – and why – the research will help the local government target interventions to those who need it most.

The second study compared the effectiveness of approaches to self-built and donor-built housing following natural disasters in Hue and Da Nang. It found that the most climate-resilient houses were built by families whose accumulated local knowledge from past storms was combined with donor technical support. Support from neighbours and family was also important.

The researchers recommend that builders, architects and engineers work with low-income households to develop housing that integrates local knowledge and needs with the professionals’ knowledge of safe technologies. Local governments can also play an important role in bridging the gap between local households and building professionals, while creating livelihood opportunities in hazard-prone areas.

Hard infrastructure such as housing is not the only way urban centres can limit the impacts of storms and sea surges. Soft infrastructure – in the form of mangrove forests that form a coastal barrier – can also provide effective protection.

third study investigated the value of restoring mangrove forests in Binh Dinh province and asked what local communities would be willing to pay to make this happen. It revealed that mangroves provide important tangible and intangible benefits — from physical protection to improved fish supplies and other livelihood opportunities. As well as helping communities to adapt to the threats of storms and rising seas, mangroves also limit climate change by storing carbon in their wood and soil. The study’s cost-benefit analysis suggests that the benefits of mangrove reforestation exceed those of continued aquaculture development.

From research to action

The three studies show that even people who are next-door neighbours can vary greatly in their exposure to risk, their vulnerability and levels of knowledge, and their capacity to adapt and to access solutions. They also show that one policy solution will not benefit all vulnerable people equally. Most importantly, the studies provide policymakers with concrete options for building resilience not only within households, but for urban areas and their economies more broadly.

The research projects highlighted above do more than just provide information. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation is now funding a project to specifically address concerns the heat stress study raised. It aims to:

  • increase awareness among vulnerable populations of the risks heat exposure poses.

  • pilot interventions to protect workers from heat exposure, and

  • develop a heat stress index to enable government officials, employers and workers to better monitor trends in risk levels.

Further research projects are currently underway in Vietnam, on topics ranging from economic losses faced by flood-affected households, to demand for flood risk insurance. IIED is also supporting studies of urban resilience in Indonesia, Thailand and India.

These studies highlight how important it is for local and national governments to use research to inform their policy responses to climate change. Civil society organisations and international donor agencies can also use research to help shape and develop their work.

Ultimately, research projects such of these can enable towns and cities to integrate measures to adapt to climate change with their economic and development priorities. Without such studies, cities risk adopting simplistic policy responses that fail to take account of the complex ways vulnerability and resilience vary from citizen to citizen.

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Diane Archer is a researcher in IIED's Human Settlements Group (diane.archer@iied.org). This article first appeared on the IIED website, to view it in its natural habitat please click here.