Thai city makes business case for preparing for climate change

Monday, 5 August 2013 16:38 GMT

An aerial view shows floodwaters in Hat Yai district, Songkhla province south of Bangkok in November, 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

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Hat Yai, a city in southern Thailand, is building up its resilience to worsening floods through better shared data and stronger links between the community, government and business

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Hat Yai is a bustling, highly urbanised city in Songkhla province and the largest in southern Thailand. A communications, trade and transport hub, the low-lying city is also a magnet for weekend visitors from neighbouring Malaysia. 

But a growing economy has brought rapid urban development and improper land use that have led to environmental degradation. Floods are a regular occurrence and their impact on the city of 800,000 people is increasing.

In 1988, two-metre high floodwaters caused damages estimated at 4 billion Baht ($128 million) while in 2010, 3.5-metre high floods led to more than 10 billion Baht ($320 million) worth of damage. 

While scientists predict Hat Yai will see increased rainfall, more intense or more frequent storms and bigger floods as a result of climate change, man-made pressures have already caused seasonal flooding to worsen. 

Modern agricultural practices and waterways that are obstructed by construction and have insufficient drainage are causing floods to last longer, damaging the environment, property and people’s health. 

“We cannot prevent floods as this requires building new waterways and that requires big budgets,” Somporn Siriporananon, chairperson of the Songkhla Chamber of Commerce, told a press conference to mark the start of the Rockefeller Foundation’s '100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge'

Instead, the city decided to build up its resilience to floods through better, integrated early warning and mapping systems, improved data and by strengthening community ties and the links between communities and key parts of government and business. 

This was made possible after the city was chosen in 2009 to be part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s climate resilience project in Asia, together with nine other cities in India, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

BETTER DECISION-MAKING FOR BUSINESSES

Ashvin Dayal, the Rockefeller Foundation’s managing director for Asia defined resilience as “the capacity of individuals, communities and systems to survive, adapt and grow in the face of changes, even catastrophic incidents, and sometimes even emerge stronger.” 

Building resilience isn’t just about expensive infrastructure, however, and Hat Yai has introduced early warning systems through cooperation and innovation. 

The city authorities helped local communities form committees, which mapped out the city to understand water flows. They also produced step-by-step guides on what to do in the event of a flood. 

The city has also installed CCTV cameras in an area prone to flooding.

“Usually CCTV is only used for monitoring traffic, but our CCTV can be used to monitor the direction of the water flow – where its origin is, ” Somporn said, adding it would also estimate the time it takes for flood waters to reach the city. 

Such information is available to the public in real time.

This will not only save lives and protect the poor and vulnerable – often hardest hit by natural disasters – but it would also lead to better decision-making for businesses in Hat Yai, where rubber and frozen food are key exports and highly vulnerable to natural disasters, Somporn said. 

Projects to build such resilience, led by the Thailand Environment Institute, are ongoing in Hat Yai. They include raising awareness and developing flood modelling systems. 

RESILIENT CITIES CHALLENGE 

The Rockefeller Foundation, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, is drawing on the experiences of places like Hat Yai and the investments made there to invite cities from around the world to participate in a challenge. 

The 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge, part of a $100 million effort to build resilience in cities worldwide, was announced in May and registration opened on Monday. 

“By 2050, it is projected that three-quarters of the world’s population will live in cities, and almost 60 percent of this growth will happen here in Asia,” said Dayal. 

“Asian cities also face an increasingly diverse and unpredictable range of shocks and stresses stemming from things such as climate change, environmental degradation, economic volatility, disease outbreaks and the like,” he added. 

“We see a very urgent need for a serious effort on the part of governments, the private sector and civil society to invest in making cities of the future more resilient for everyone,” he said. 

Cities will be asked to make a presentation about how they are planning to build greater resilience through engagement with multiple stakeholders – from civil society to the private sector – and in ways that address the needs of the poor and vulnerable. 

Each winning city, selected by a panel of resilience experts, will receive support to hire a chief resilience officer and to create a resilience plan, along with tools, technical help and resources for implementation, including help in leveraging financial support. 

Winners will also become members of the 100 Resilient Cities Network.

The winners will be announced in three rounds over the next three years, with the final round scheduled for 2015.

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