One of the most striking changes at Rio+20, compared to the original 1992 Earth Summit, is the extensive discussion of population issues. In part, this is driven by the fact that many developing countries, including the BRICs, are seeking to redefine what sustainability means with their generally rapid annual growth rates, and high population growth which is estimated to see world population rise from around 7bn today, to between 8bn and 11bn by 2050.
This reminds us of the massive challenges, especially in the developing world, created by an ever-increasing number of humans on the planet.
Growing populations are also driving another mega trend - urbanisation through migration. In 1800, less than 3 percent of the population lived in cities, yet by the end of 2008, this had risen to more than 50 percent, and there were 26 megacities (cities of 10n or more inhabitants), including Rio itself.
Despite the economic success of megacities, governments at every level are preparing for the growing risks that these massive urban centres pose. It is therefore fitting that one of the focal points of Rio+20 is laying the foundations for a more sustainable development model for megacities.
Key questions to be addressed include whether it will be possible to continually meet the everyday needs of food, water and health, and also deal with the growing vulnerability of megacities to environmental stresses exacerbated by the effects of climate change?
There is already cause for some alarm. For instance, the 2003 heat-wave in Paris was so devastating because both the public and authorities were unprepared for dealing with such extreme weather conditions, which were exacerbated by building practices, especially the lack of air-conditioning. Moreover, the tsunami in Japan last year forced Tokyo to re-consider its approach to nuclear power and to protecting its cities.
During the 21st century, megacities across the world will continue to grow, as will other large urban conglomerations which have megacity features. Energy demands will thus increase as supplies of food, water and resources for industries and infrastructure require energy for transportation.
The associated increased carbon emissions are contributing to global warming and pose their own climate risks. In China, where people are being subsidised to move from the countryside, cities have grown by a factor of two in only five years. The local urban ‘heat island’ effect means temperatures are increasing about three times faster than the rate of temperature rise over global and national land areas.
The main risk for riverine megacities on coastal plains is their increasing vulnerability to rising sea levels and river flooding. There will be further episodes such as the one in New Orleans seven years ago when it was hit by Hurricane Katrina, without adequate protection and flood warning systems.
In at-risk countries, such as the Netherlands, researchers are preparing for these type of problems. For instance, Delft University’s Hydraulic Engineering Department has been developing a state of the art early warning and monitoring system, including the effects of subsidence, to protect coastal communities.
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The larger the urban area, the greater the damage that natural hazards can inflict; and increasingly it may be impossible to protect life and property even if there is a perfect warning system. As a major hurricane in Houston showed last year, despite the known dangers from combined hazards such as winds and floods, there is now insufficient time to evacuate some cities safely, even highly developed ones.
So there is a pressing need for cities to develop emergency refuge areas. In some cases these may already exist. For instance, Canvey Island in England still keeps its mound in case severe floods of the nature of 1953 return.
In most cases, however, refuges will need to be built from scratch. Thus, engineers and planners are considering how to identify and design such emergency centres, whether outside or within buildings, and how these should be connected to the wider urban system, including transportation.
Training populations to use the centres effectively is also essential. Refuges have successfully withstood cyclones and floods in Bangladesh and, unlike those in some other developing countries, have been used by vulnerable communities, because they could take their vital farm animals with them -- without the animals they are destitute.
Emergency energy supplies for communities, which are essential for medical emergencies, should improve in future. This is especially so using advanced solar power - effective even in cloudy conditions.
Because of the failures to deal with some of the recent hazards impacting on megacities, governments at every level are planning for multiple hazards and developing strategies for managing the range of environmental factors which could emerge. Moreover, other research teams are collaborating in construction of ‘system dynamics’ models for the operation of infrastructure, environment and socio-economic aspects of megacities.
These models resemble well-known computer programmes for global climate change and its interconnections to economic developments. As with Delft University’s coastal monitoring system, these will help cities to predict which hazards they face and help them decide how to prepare.
The London Mayor’s office is taking a particular interest in which policy options emerge as London continues to expand. Meanwhile, several cities are experimenting with air quality hazard indicators based on complex system models to appraise citizens about how the environment in their cities varies hourly and over the longer term.
What these models need is improved availability of relevant environmental and socio-economic data. Here, international agencies such as the World Health Organisation and the World Meteorological Organisation, as well as national governments, need to collaborate with a wider range of organisations, and make maximum use of new media. This will better enable data showing how people experience both rapidly occurring hazards such as tornadoes, and slower, but still deadly, phenomenon such as loss of crops from rising sea levels and salt penetration.
Fortunately, megacities have a global organisation for information exchange and collaboration called C40 Cities. The future agenda here includes enhanced inter-city cooperation on policies for dealing with hazards, and putting more pressure on national governments to assist, especially with finance and data, and strategic priorities.
Lord Julian Hunt is Visiting Professor at Delft University and former Director General of the UK Met Office
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