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Will East Asia's exploding cities put more people in harm's way?

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 26 January 2015 12:47 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As people flock to the region's cities, planners must avoid expansion in high-risk areas, World Bank says

Between 2000 and 2010, almost 200 million people moved from rural to urban areas in East Asia, a number equal to the population of the world’s sixth largest country, says a new World Bank report out on Monday. This trend is expected to continue. 

East Asia now has 869 urban areas with more than 100,000 people, including eight megacities of more than 10 million people. 

This is good news for poverty reduction - the report established a positive link between urbanisation and income growth. But it also creates challenges. 

More people will be exposed to climate-related weather events in growing urban areas, for example.

Experts have long warned that East Asia is extremely vulnerable to climate change.

Unchecked urbanisation combined with sudden influxes of people, a lack of planning and poor infrastructure, including waste management and drainage systems, could further damage the environment and increase risks. 

Abhas Jha, the World Bank’s practice manager for East Asia and the Pacific, told the report launch from Singapore that, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “the biggest driver of disaster risk in the foreseeable future is going to be the growth of people in harm’s way”. 

“If you can do spatial planning that guides future urbanisation away from high-risk areas, that is the best that cities can do,” he added. 

Besides increasing exposure to disasters, urban expansion could aggravate inequality in access to services, employment and housing, the report said. 

“The spatial expansion of a city directly affects the poor in its path,” it said. 

“Land is often taken or bought at cheap prices from poor rural landowners on the urban fringe. The lack of affordable housing and efficient public transportation in large cities can force the poor to live far from work, schools, clinics, markets and other amenities, and exacerbate problems of social exclusion,” it added. 

But if done right, urbanisation could contribute to ending extreme poverty, the World Bank said. 


Despite the acceleration of urbanisation, only 36 percent of East Asia’s population currently lives in urban areas, up from 29 percent in 2000, so decades of further growth are expected, the report said.

China’s Pearl River Delta, which includes the cities of Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Foshan and Dongguan, is the world’s largest urban area in terms of both size and population. It has 42 million people – more than the individual populations of Argentina, Canada and Australia.

While many reports have touched on East Asia’s rapid urbanisation, what’s new about this latest from the World Bank is that it offers the first set of standardised data on the issue. This is useful because countries have different definitions of what “urban” means, making previous data hard to compare. 

“Indonesia defines urban as areas having urban characteristics. Vietnam defines urban as any place having more than 4,000 people, without defining what the place means,” Jha said. 

For this report, the researchers looked at cities with more than 100,000 people, using satellite imagery and geospatial mapping to understand urbanisation trends. There are plans to conduct similar research in other regions, the World Bank said. 

Here are some interesting numbers about East Asia’s urban expansion from the report:

- Of the 869 urban areas with more than 100,000 people in the region, 600 were in China, followed by 77 in Indonesia and 59 in Japan. 

- It took Europe more than 50 years for 200 million people to become urbanised, compared with just 10 years in East Asia.

- Two-thirds of the region’s total urban land and more than 80 percent of urban expansion in 2010 were in China. 

- East Asia’s urban areas include eight megacities with populations over 10 million, 123 large cities with between 1 million and 10 million people, and 738 medium and small cities with 100,000 to 1 million people.

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