Skip NavigationMenu

Insights and Analysis

Asia’s Cities Poised to Lead in Climate Change Adaptation

January 28, 2015

By Toral Patel

With support from the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities challenge, a number of cities across Asia are beginning to confront the impacts of climate change. Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, recently selected as one of Resilient Cities’ newest member cities and home to 1.5 million people, is one. Due to its low elevation and proximity to the Mekong River, Phnom Penh is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly heavy monsoons rains which can create disruptive urban flooding, while changes in precipitation patterns and increasing saltwater intrusion adversely affect the city’s water supply and coastal ecosystems.

Monsoon in Phnom Penh

Due to its low elevation and proximity to the Mekong River, Phnom Penh is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly heavy monsoons rains which can create disruptive urban flooding. Photo/Flickr user Chun Yip So

Proximity to rivers and coastlines increases exposure to climate-induced hazards in many mega-cities like Bangkok, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City, and Manila. Exposure alone, however, is not what makes these and other Asian cities vulnerable. Rather, it is their low capacity to adapt to new and existing hazards.

Rapid rates of population growth and urbanization accompanying economic growth in the past decade have contributed to staggering deficiencies in urban infrastructure and basic service provision across Asian cities. Phnom Penh, for instance, faces a long legacy of underdevelopment, and lagging investments in critical storm water, drainage, and transportation systems have resulted in these public services being strained to a near breaking point. Seventy percent of the city’s energy is imported, and 10 percent is supplied from two hydropower plants that are barely enough to meet electricity demand during the dry season, even at peak output. Over the last few years, a combination of foreign aid and private and public investment has enabled incremental upgrading of Phnom Penh’s antiquated and often overburdened systems, but the city remains unable to cope with day-to-day strains on its infrastructure, much less the more extreme rains and flooding as a result of climate change.

In addition, in Phnom Penh and throughout Asia, millions of urban dwellers live in poor quality housing in informal settlements, lacking the infrastructure and services that would allow them to cope with climate change impacts. While urbanization rates vary widely by sub-region, the expected urbanization rates across Asia will reach 50 percent in 2026. A World Bank report on Asia’s coastal megacities concluded that low-income and marginalized communities are among the most vulnerable: these groups often live in low-lying areas such as floodplains, work in the informal economy, and lack the assets to move to less vulnerable areas. The weak capacity to adapt means that increasing floods, more severe storms, changing precipitation patterns, water scarcity, and rising sea levels associated with climate change could have devastating impacts for urban populations. These impacts are also emerging far from coastal areas in places like Mongolia. Despite its wealth of natural resources, the country faces a severe water scarcity and quality crisis. Its rapidly growing capital, Ulaanbaatar, may face a water shortage as early as 2015. Those living in the city’s ger districts, unplanned areas without access to basic public services, are at particularly high risk.

In a departure from previous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports, the fifth and most recent report emphasizes the potential for city governments to play a major role in responding to climate change. Adaptation to climate change is an adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic impacts, according to the IPCC. The unique concentration of people and climate risks in cities provides significant scope for action.

First, municipal governments are well positioned to design adaptation processes that engage local stakeholders, are closer than national governments to the citizens they serve and thus able to be more responsive to their needs, and are integrated with local policy priorities and frameworks. Second, they often have jurisdiction over areas that are critical to climate change adaptation, from land-use planning and zoning to water supply and waste management. Reducing basic service deficits and building resilient infrastructure systems at the urban scale can significantly reduce vulnerability to climate change. Urban adaptation can also enhance a city’s economic comparative advantage by making cost-effective investments in compact, connected and coordinated growth. Considering that Asia’s cities are key drivers of national economic growth, urban climate adaption is an imperative.

Low levels of technical, fiscal, and managerial capacity among municipal governments in developing countries, however, make it difficult for cities to effectively manage climate-related risks. Lack of awareness among urban officials regarding both the nature and magnitude of risks, such as flooding or rising temperature, is also an issue. Over the past decade, a number of private, non-state, and intergovernmental actors have begun to fill these capacity and awareness gaps by providing support for climate adaptation planning and implementation processes in cities. The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) initiative, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, provided support to 10 cities across India, Indonesia, and Vietnam to develop, test, and demonstrate practical climate adaptation strategies.

On the whole, however, international funding mechanisms to support urban climate adaptation in low- and middle-income countries fall significantly short of meeting the actual costs of adaptation. Estimated costs remain imprecise, but are in the range of tens of billions of dollars per annum globally.

There is a need for greater attention on climate change adaptation at the urban scale, especially to maintain Asia’s growth as the world’s fastest growing region and home to over half of today’s “mega-cities.” Given that climate change adaptation and effective local development go hand in hand, development assistance can play a role in supporting adaptation by reducing the underlying social and economic drivers of vulnerability in cities. Several bilateral and multilateral development aid agencies have embraced the idea of mainstreaming climate adaptation into development planning and processes. However, funneling donor funds down to the urban scale and effectively integrating these two agendas in practice remains a challenge.

Toral Patel is a program associate with The Asia Foundation’s Environment Program, based in San Francisco. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

Mailing Address:
PO Box 193223
San Francisco, CA 94119-3223

The Latest Across Asia


December 7, 2022

Support Women Forest Defenders

Join us this holiday season to help untapped leaders like Sumini and the Women Forest Defenders battle rampant deforestation in Indonesia.