Interview with Ashvin Dayal, Associate Vice President and Managing Director, Asia, Rockefeller Foundation

Urbanization, more than any other process affecting our world today, has affected humanity’s relationship with our surrounding environment. According to The Economist, 64.1 percent and 85.9 percent of the developing and developed world respectively will live in urban centers by 2050, resulting in the most important change in humanity’s settlement patterns since our shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture thousands of years ago.

At the same time, climate change is resulting in not only increasingly violent and deadly natural disasters, but also long term shifts in weather patterns that will deeply impact humanity’s ability to survive where humans previously thrived for thousands of years.

Over the next decades, as we grow closer to 9 billion people in 2050, 60 percent of global population growth is expected to be in Asia. Asian megacities such as Dhaka, Jakarta, Mumbai, Delhi, Manila, Seoul, Karachi, and Beijing already can claim over 20 million people within their every growing borders, and other megacities such as Tokyo and Shanghai are expected to reach 40 million people before 2020.

To find out more how Asian cities are preparing for the triple challenges of increasing urbanization, climate change, and poverty, Diplomatic Courier sat down with Ashvin Dayal, Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation's Asia offices. The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), a multi-million dollar initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, is an ongoing effort to build climate change resilience so cities can “survive, recover from, and even thrive in changing climatic conditions.”


[Diplomatic Courier:] Tell us a little about ACCCRN.

[Ashvin Dayal:] ACCCRN was set up with the goal of discovering how we test and develop methods and tools and capacities within a set of cities in Asia to think about the climate change impact that they’re going to face in the context of already rapidly urbanizing places, and then asking, what are the different possibilities going to be? Which of the communities are going to be more affected? What sort of systems within the city are going to come under stress? Are they going to be more vulnerable to certain types of natural disasters? And how do you create a city-wide strategy to think about what the risks are and what priorities for action in order to help develop or mitigate those risks should be?

We have invested $59 million toward this. The core of the program is still running, and it’s expanded from an initial base of ten small cities in poor countries to, by the end of next year we will have supported close to 50 cities in a total of six countries.

[DC:] The United Nations just released a report on climate change that came to the conclusion that it is no longer a question of if, but how and how much climate change will affect humanity. From your perspective based in Thailand, what are some of the challenges that climate change will bring to Asia?

[AD:] Up until now we have been talking about a scenario with a 2 degree increase in mean temperatures globally, but many scientists are now seeing increase of 3.5 to 4 degree increase scenario. That has a huge impact, and Asia is really on the front line of this. If you think about the exposure, for example, of an urban area in the coastal region—you take places like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand—these are places that have a historical vulnerability to coastal storms. In this part of the world we call them typhoons, but they are essentially hurricanes.

Now, we know that the impact of climate change is changing the frequency and intensity of these storms. Last year there was something like 23 storms that hit the Philippines alone. That is being compounded by things like a dramatic rise in sea levels; that, in turn, creates issues like coastal erosion and salinization of the ground water supplies, but it also gets magnified and amplified when you have a storm. So you have a combination of more intense storms, worse storm surge, and if you layer on top of that higher sea level rise anyway, you’re getting a devastating impact.

We’re seeing now that a diagnostic by the Economic Development Board of Asia estimated that close to $54 billion in damages per year on average over the last few years. We saw that here in Bangkok in 2011 with the floods that hit Bangkok and the surrounding areas. The damage estimates were around $45 billion just from that flood incident. So we’re getting to numbers of economic impact, in addition to the terrible human impact, that I now think are of macroeconomic significance.

I was at the World Economic Forum in Asia in May and spoke directly to the Philippines Minister of Finance about this, and he was very worried about ultimately what effect these frequently occurring climate-related events are going to have on the not only GDP growth in his country, but also the ACCCRN region more generally.

These impacts are not just in the terms of big events like storms and floods. You see a lot of slow onset and slow burning impacts that we find in the cities we work in. For example, there is a massive shift in how traditional diseases that we thought we understood—like malaria, dengue, Japanese encephalitis—these Sector One Diseases that we had thought we were on top of. We thought we knew how to cope with it. We knew when to do the sector control program, which time of the year; we knew what the dengue season was, and we had managed to sort of contain it.

But when you look over the last few years of the incidence rates, it’s actually quite alarming. I’ve seen cities with increasingly larger incidence rates of health complications and diseases because the health systems don’t actually know how to cope. They haven’t understood yet how they need to change their protocols, for example, because temperature change and moisture changes are changing the pattern of these diseases. I was in a city in the south of Vietnam called Cần Thơ a couple of months ago, in the Mekong Delta, and the head of the health department there said, “we no longer have a dengue season. It’s year round, and our systems are not set up to cope with that.”

So there are these other sort of issues and challenges that we’re facing, and that also have economic impact if you have an increasing number of people affected by health problems. For example, you have heatstroke. We were talking to a construction company based out of Hong Kong but that works extensively throughout the region, talking about how increasingly you have these peak days of heat and humidity, and that they have had more violent such days than in previous times—now we’re having ten, fifteen of those days per year, and the impact on workers is something they’re very worried about, because a lot of their workers work outdoors. Right now, from the individual household level and the damage that low-income families face from a storm or a flood or from a health incident, all the way up to the macroeconomic impact, Asia really is facing a very diverse set of problems. That’s precisely what we’re trying to address with the ACCCRN initiative and through other work that Rockefeller Foundation is doing.

[DC:] How can building resiliency to climate change help people, not only in catastrophic situations, such as increasingly violent storms, but also through long term shifts in historical patterns?

[AD:] It’s really important that we don’t lose sight of the long term issues and what we call in the business the chronic stresses that cities are facing and that are being aggravated by climate change. We have questions of water quality, and scarcity of water. We have to find new ways of managing water supply access to these very rapidly growing urban centers.

If you look at South Asia, India for example, there is already a chronic crisis. You go into any city in India, and you very rarely find a reliable, 24-hour water supply, because the cities are groaning and straining under the pressure of growing populations; there are issues of mismanagement, but there are also now new stresses, because there is increasing demand, and because of the increasing heat. And then the sources of fresh water supply are being affected because of glacial melt. I mean, you name it.

So these are chronic challenges, and you might not see them as crises on any one given day, but a future of urban sustainability and the competitiveness of cities and their ability to continue to be these engines of economic growth are going to be affected by these chronic stresses.

Health is one example. Management of water, water supply, and water quality is another example. And there are several other issues that we need to address as just good urban management questions, but we need to understand how they’re being affected by climate change. Doing projections and doing the kind of modeling work that we’re doing to help cities understand what the scenario is going to look like in 15, 20, or 25 years out so cities can plan with that scenario in mind. You need to solve problems that are being faced today, but you also need to try and get ahead of the problem and not be constantly chasing your tail, and that’s something that a lot of city managers here right now are struggling with. And the only way you can get ahead of this is to really understand what the implications are going to look like 10 or 15 years down the road, and then try and attract the resources and financing and support that you need to address these. These are big, big challenges.

[DC:] Why does ACCCRN choose to focus on cities and urban centers as opposed to rural areas?

[AD:] That’s a fair question. It’s not to say that the impacts are any less for severe a household in rural areas, and in some ways if you have a lower income in a rural area, that could complicate access to water and housing. The reason we focused on urban areas was because when we looked at what was already happening and where the debate and action was on climate resilience and understanding risk and policy, we saw quite a lot of research and action by governments taking place in the field of agriculture. Quite a lot of work in Asia was happening on drought resistant varieties, such as multiple strains of rice.

What we felt was missing was an understanding of how cities were going to be affected. They had historically not been incorporated into the national climate change plans of many of the countries in Asia. And yet, when you think about it, in this region in the next decade or so, about 70-75 percent of GDP will be generated in cities, so they are the economic hubs for the national economy. More than 50 percent of the population will be living in cities, and it will be on very limited amounts of land—the cities occupy maybe 3 or 4 percent of the land at most.

So if you think about it, cities are these intense concentrations of assets and people. If a major storm hits an urban area that is unprepared, the effects of it can be really catastrophic, and it has a cascading effect on the economy, on the wellbeing of a very large number of the people, and on different sectors. We thought this was an area that, if you think to the future and the dynamism in Asia, was something that was neglected and required more attention. Since we launched ACCCRN, actually, several other efforts have come in, and we think we’ve been influential in trying to bring the spotlight on this issue, all the way up to institutions like the Asian Development Bank but also national governments. In December 2013, the Prime Minister of Vietnam issued a decree requiring all cities in Vietnam to develop a climate resilience strategy, and part of that was based on their observations of the pilot cities that we’ve been working in, including our new program in Cần Thơ, and the success that we’ve seen there.

Not to detract from the importance of rural adaptation and climate risk, but at the start, we felt that there was already more momentum on that front as we were considering our strategy.

[DC:] According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, 67 percent of business leaders from the logistics and distribution sectors and 39 percent from energy and natural resources sectors in Asia are demanding urgent action on climate change. How do you find governments are responding to this push from the private sector, and do you find that local governments may be more responsive than national governments might be?

[AD:] Absolutely. I think this is one of the big challenges that we still have to crack, to be honest, and this is why we are planning to really focus on how to build a public-private partnership around this. Through the ACCCRN Initiative, we’ve seen really good examples of the business community and local government collaborating to think about risks and vulnerability, because they are thinking of it from a perspective of the overall competitiveness of the city: “If we don’t address our risks, if we’re not seen to be resilient, then how are we going to continue to attract jobs and investment? How are we going to continue to be a vibrant economy?”

Local businesses get that, and because they are embedded within that community. They understand the dynamics of that city. So whether in western India in Surat, in Jorhat, or in Hat Yai in Thailand, we’ve actually seen local chambers of commerce lead the debate, lead the action, and push the government to come into this. We need a similar dynamic internationally and even globally in terms of having the business sector look at this as a collective challenge that they need to unite.

On that statistic from the EIU, it’s not surprising to me that businesses or people working on logistics and supply chains have a much higher demand, but there is a tendency still to be looking at it from an individual industry point, an individual company point of view: “How do I protect my supply chain? How do I protect my factory from a flood?” But if you look at what happened in Bangkok, unless we have more of a business-wide, sector-wide perspective on this, what we could end up creating a situation where all we’re doing is transferring risk from one company to another, or from one physical area to another.

We are quite focused right now on trying to foster dialogue between companies and governments on this. Not enough is happening. There isn’t enough awareness. It’s too focused right now on individual supply chain issues, which is important, but it’s not, on its own, a way to transform the long term planning that’s required; that can only happen if government and business have some priority to actually work together. That’s precisely what we’re focusing on over the next year or so, on how we can catalyze that.

[DC:] Climate change has had an impact across several different sectors, but one sector that maybe does not get as much attention is public health. What are some of the challenges that you run into when trying to connect climate change and urban resiliency to issues like public health?

[AD:] One of the surprises I get working with ACCCRN is actually how much the public health question has come up through looking at climate change resilience. I say it’s come up in three or four different ways.

One, we have the whole question of how disease factors are being affected by shifts in climatic conditions that our public institutions and systems have yet not equipped to cope with. So we have this really interesting project in Cần Thơ where epidemiologists are working with climate scientists to try to understand what some of the likely trends and factors will be on these key Sector One Diseases, so that they can then reexamine the protocol that they use for detection, sector control, etc. We need a lot more capacity, and we need to have more cities where you bring those communities together the climate scientists, public health professionals, and epidemiologists. We have something similar in India, and something similar going on in Indonesia.

But there are other public health issues. The heat stress question is one of those things that I think that we really underreport, because they don’t have reporting on heat related illnesses and deaths in many developing countries. It’s sort of a hidden thing that needs to get much more visibility within the public health discussion when we think about climate change in cities. In India we have an interesting project that’s digging into the question of how do we design low income housing with much more attention to things like cooling and active ventilation, where people are not rich enough or wealthy enough to depend on air conditioning. How do you transform the way houses are being built so that you can actually bring the ambient temperatures down inside those houses by four or five degrees so you have fewer heat related illnesses?

Another example is water quality and illness. In one of our deltaic cities—again Cần Thơ as an example—there is a question of how ground water and surface water is being affected by salinization because of the sea level rise and storm surge. People are dependent on that water supply for their production, so we can’t necessarily immediately solve the problem of salinity. What we are doing there is creating real-time monitoring system that checks, every fifteen minutes at eight stations around the city, what the salinity level is, and it has an alert system to provide, through SMS, information to people in the city to say, look at this hour, because it’s high tide, the water is actually above WHO recommended norms of consumption.

There are a huge number of public health issues coming up through this, and I think in general we need to get the public health community much more engaged, and I’m glad we’ve been able to do that to some extent through ACCCRN. This is only going to become more significant in the years ahead.

[DC:] ACCCRN has projects in at least 30 cities across Asia now, up from ten when you launched in 2008. Does one city come to mind as a case study in the success of your approach?

[AD:] A few do. One that we talk about a lot is Surat in western India, a staple for drought. This is a great example of a city that’s really brought together all the staples. The business community has been very active, so there’s been a strong economic driver for this. People have the understanding that it’s not just a human and development issue—it’s also about the long term vibrancy of the economy.

They’ve done really interesting things there in terms of addressing their chronic or serious flood risk. This is a city that was 75 percent flooded for about a week about eight years ago, and they recognize that is going to be an increasing risk. They’ve developed an end-to-end warning system that’s not just about bringing in a new information system or technology, but also about changing the way different institutions coordinate so that information is provided at the right time. Also decisions are being made at the right time upstream in terms of how the reservoir and the dam outside the city are being managed, because there are all these different agendas. There’s agriculture, but you might need to release water one time of the year for electricity generation; you want the dams to be full, but for the city managing a flood, you might want early releases, so there might be a sudden release because of an intense rainfall incident.

So Surat is bringing in a whole new culture of institutional coordination backed by some new information systems and better real-time weather monitoring information. The city is really proactive. They’ve formed an entirely new institution, which is a public private partnership between government, private sector, and civil society, in what they call a special purpose vehicle that can channel future investments to continue to build resilience in the city.

But, you know, there are good examples in other places. I think we often talk about Hat Yai in Thailand, where the business in the city has been very active, or Đà Nẵng in Vietnam and Semarang in Indonesia on the North Coast of Java, all doing a lot of very interesting things. And I think what, ultimately, when we talk about successes, what we’re seeing is the cities that are really successful are the ones where we are seeing an institutionalization of that cross-sector collaboration.

It’s not just big projects that come in. With the resources available, there’s no one project that’s going to solve this, but it’s where you create a new and sustained pattern of engagement and assessment and review and where you have staples that are really starting to champion the issue. That’s where we’re seeing real success, because that’s where we can see potential for this to be not just for this year or next, but for the next ten years and potentially beyond.

[DC:] What do you think needs to be the next step in addressing climate change, both in Asia as well as globally?

[AD:] Clearly we need a deal on emissions, that goes without saying. We can’t give up on trying to curb emissions and stopping the world short of a catastrophic tipping point.

On the resilience side, I think the biggest thing right now is to deepen our understanding of the economic impact. Finance and the private sector and cities need to work together to understand the economic case to invest in resilience, and therefore to create the incentives for more forward investment, more upfront investment.

There’s an analog in the old disaster risk reduction debate where we know that if you spend a dollar now, you’re going to save five dollars down the road. But somehow we don’t have sharp enough metrics, or somehow we’re not yet making the case as convincingly as we need to, so that the people who control resources see this as a priority. We need to come up with innovation in how we create financial products that can help increase the level of investment. So that’s looking at it from the supply side.

On the demand side, we need a massive increase in capacity building at the city level for stakeholders to be ready with their plans and their ideas, to be able to absorb that kind of money. We’re doing some of that now, we’re working with ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability—which is a network of 3,000 cities—to produce a streamlined capacity building process within the city where you engage stakeholders and introduce information. You need to bring in some tools and resources to help you think about the issues and the priorities, so that you’re not just parachuting an a project, but you’re landing it within an equal system that is engaged in issues with actors that are actually thinking deeply within the context of climate change.

We need to work more with the supply side in terms of finance, but the demand side in terms of capacity. We’re touching 40 or 50 cities by the end of next year. We have thousands that we need to be able to support in this way, so a lot more needs to be done.

Chrisella Sagers Herzog is the managing editor of Diplomatic Courier and Editor-in-Chief of WhiteHat Magazine. She can be found on Twitter at @Chrisella.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's July/August 2014 print edition.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.