OPINION: Achieving urban sustainable development in the face of COVID-19

Tuesday, 9 June 2020 14:53 GMT

A red rag hangs in a window as a distress signal to receive government aid and subsidies, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bogota, Colombia April 21, 2020. REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

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Why estimating the cost of basic services and infrastructure of cities is essential to fight the COVID-19 and support the SDGs

Marco Kamiya is a senior economist in the Knowledge & Innovation Branch of UN-Habitat.

Mihir Prakash is a senior researcher at Aid Data, a research lab at William & Mary's Global Research Institute.

Governments, businesses and local communities that have made commitments towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs are reporting regressive trends on various aspects of sustainable development in the wake of COVID-19 In the immediate term, we can see effects on goals are SDG 3: Good Health and Wellbeing and SDG 4: Education for All. However, in the medium- to long-term, severe impacts will also be felt on SDG 1: No Poverty and SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth.

The World Bank estimates nearly 50 million people worldwide would be pushed back into extreme poverty, with Sub-Saharan Africa comprising the greatest share.

The COVID-19 outbreak has shown how the prevalence of poverty, weak health systems, lack of education, and deficiencies in global cooperation can create spillover effects of a pandemic into the socio-economic conditions of countries. We must cooperate multilaterally and that we cannot lose focus on the achievement of the SDGs as we battle the COVID-19 effects. The 17 SDGs provide a pathway for us to “build back better” after this crisis is over.

The total financing required to cover the costs for cities, who are on the frontline of the COVID-19 outbreak, remain largely unknown at this stage. In the absence of quantifiable information on the costs to implement the UN’s urban sustainability goals, it is difficult for cities to accurately assess what resources are needed or identify shortfalls. This challenge is exacerbated for city leaders in developing countries who bear the burden of local infrastructure and service delivery, while operating in data constrained environments with limited resources at their disposal. Cities need to understand and quantify a cost baseline for local infrastructure and the SDGs in order to plan for investment and monitoring.

Lessons can be learned from a recent study on the costs of achieving SDG 11 by UN-Habitat & AidData. Together, they prepared a methodology for a two-phase effort to develop a systematic, replicable, and scalable approach to capture both the “hard” and “soft” costs to support sustainable cities in the lead-up to 2030. The initial cost estimates for Colombia, India, Bolivia and Malaysia are available as data visualizations. This study takes a city-centric view on the costs of urban sustainability, as opposed to previous studies that have looked at costs on the national and global scale. Included in this city-centric approach are the costs of critical institutional infrastructure at the municipal level such as city planning and citizen engagement.

The initial study includes average annual costs of achieving SDG 11 from 2019-2030 for 129 cities of varying size in four middle-income countries: Bolivia, India, Malaysia and Colombia. Cost estimates from the four sampled countries show that the total average annual cost for small cities to achieve SDG 11 ranges from USD 18 million in Malaysia to USD 54 million in Bolivia. For medium-sized cities, the total average annual cost ranges from USD 144 million in India to USD 516 million in Malaysia and for larger cities the total annual averages range from USD 645 million in Bolivia to nearly USD 5.3 billion in Malaysia.

The study points to the fact that different countries will have different investment needs depending on country-specific characteristics. However, results indicate that for a small city in a developing country, such as Mitú (Vaupés) in Colombia, total average annual costs can be expected of around USD 20-50 million. For a medium-sized developing city like Cartagena in Colombia, Thiruvananthapuram in India, or Cochabamba in Bolivia, the costs range from around USD 140 million to more than USD 500 million. Large developing cities, like Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia or Bogota in Colombia, can expect an average annual cost from around USD 600 million to over USD 5 billion.

These estimations of the cost for successfully achieving SDG 11 were carried out before the COVID-19 crisis, but the methodology can prove helpful in efforts to assess the financial needs to combat this pandemic and its effects. The cost estimations however presently exclude costs that cities carry for healthcare and emergency response.

Underlying the emergence and/or spread of any disease is a deficient water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems. In addition, individuals that are unable to access basic services such as water to wash their hands are more vulnerable to falling ill to the virus. Yet, nearly 3 billion people do not have access to even basic handwashing facilities at home today. To avoid a similar situation to today in the years to come, we must achieve access to safe and affordable drinking water and adequate sanitation for all. COVID-19 has shown how quickly a disease that starts in one corner of the world can affect us all in today’s globalized world.