Towards sustainable living in S-E Asia

JAKARTA: Population growth and urbanisation are projected to add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050, with nearly 90% of the increase coming from Asia and Africa. In Southeast Asia, urbanisation is one of the major trends currently shaping its societies.

With a population of more than 630 million in 2015, more than 40% of whom have already urbanised at a rate of 5.6% per year in Laos, 4.6% in Cambodia, 3.9% in Myanmar and 3.3% in Indonesia, Asean is home to some of the largest and fastest growing cities in the world. A few of those cities are already some of the most populated metropolises in the world.

Without doubt, the constant increase of Asean's urban population will continuously put pressure on its sustainability. Combined with the impact of climate change, these pressures may lead to unsustainable future for Asean cities.

On the other hand, weak planning, lack of human resource and financial resources, poor governance coupled with a lack of readiness to efficiently manage urban natural resources and usage of low-carbon technology, in addition to poor disaster risk management and climate resilience, will all contribute to sustainability challenges as above.

The above issues are timely for discussion, now that the eighth EAS Seminar on Sustainable Cities will be held in Chiang Rai, Thailand on Feb 8 and 9.

The study on climate change vulnerability in Asean in 2009 found that the entire Philippines, the Mekong River delta in Vietnam, almost all the regions of Cambodia, North and East Laos, the Bangkok region and parts of Sumatra and Java in Indonesia are among regions most vulnerable to climate change impact.

Land subsidence is a well-known phenomenon affecting Jakarta and some other Asean cities, causing damage to housing, buildings and infrastructure, expansion of flooding areas, malfunction of drainage systems and river canals and increased inland sea water intrusion.

Weak human resources, coupled with weak planning, have led to uncontrollable development of the cities, causing many social, econo­mic and environmental problems. Many cities in Asean have evolved without any planning at all, leading to very costly social and economic implications and unpopular movements to realign their development.

Jakarta is one of the cities in Asean that have experienced the high cost of community evictions. Only very recently have Jakarta and some other Asean cities begun investing in the development of decent public transportation to better serve the urban and peri-urban citizens, mostly with the support from big donor countries and/or financial institutions.

After a long wait, Metro Manila has just completed its Sustainable Development Plan in 2014, popularly known as a dream plan that will try to eliminate traffic congestion, prevent households from living in hazardous conditions, remove barriers to mobility and eliminate air pollution.

Similar moves have also been initiated in other cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Bandar Seri Begawan.

The lack of financial resources is one of the major issues hampering sustainable development for big and small cities in Asean. Metro Manila’s dream plan will not come cheap and will need around US$52bil (RM230bil) until 2030. The first phase of Jakarta’s MRT is costing around US$75mil per km (RM331mil).

Therefore, financial diplomacy will be a key initiative in mobilising support to sustainably develop Asean cities.

Asean has committed itself to ensure that urban areas are environmentally sustainable while meeting the economic and social needs of the people as outlined in the Asean Socio-Cultural Commu-nity Blueprint.

Supported by donors and under the purview of the Asean Working Group on Environmentally Sustain-able Cities (AWGESC), Asean for example has produced the Asean Initiative on Environmentally Sustainable Cities (ESC) that covers 25 smaller and rapidly growing cities across Asean.

A few activities of this initiative have already been underway, such as the ESC Award, the Asean Certificate of Recognition for cities that meet clean air, clean land and clean water indicators assigned by the Working Group.

However, there is very little explanation about the direction where these initiatives will lead Asean cities in the future. Unlike Singapore, which is sustainably well developed and managed, many Asean cities are still struggling with social, economic, ethical and environmental issues.

Due to the lack of funding and capacity, Asean's cities will not be able to develop and implement holistic solutions. Rather, they keep strangling on low, unsustainable levels instead.

Any holistic approach to achieve liveable urban development requires that economic, social and environmental perspectives supported by enabling factors are translated into participatory, well designed activities.

This approach will need to be mainstreamed into national and decentralised local-level development plans. This is also in line with the New Urban Agenda and Goal 11 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

As the Environmentally Sustain-able Cities (ESC) has been adopted by Asean as the spirit for future urban development, it has to be clear that achieving ESC will be biased toward environmental perspectives only in the beginning. In the long term, it can only be justified if economic and social aspects are also linked to trigger greater sustainability.

Collective lessons will need to be drawn from various city development projects implemented by Asean member states with support from international donors. These will hopefully lead Asean's cities to their sustainable and liveable future. — The Jakarta Post.

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