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Protecting cities by going green

December 9, 2010

Singapore has always taken on the title of ‘Clean and Green’ city for itself. But now, the definition of the word ‘green’ no longer means lush with boreal vegetation, but that of environmentally-conscious, sustainable design and practices both on buildings and in the surroundings.
In many areas of the world, cities will be the first places where the effects of climate change will hit first, and hardest. Singapore’s coastlines will also be affected.

Urban areas now outnumber rural ones, and they are more densely populated within a highly concretised plot of land with high rise buildings. The less vegetation or availability of soil for infiltration of water into the ground, coupled with the increased amount of surface runoff from rainfall due to impermeable concrete lining the roads and floors of buildings, may cause flash floods. The consistent use of borehole wells into the groundwater supply in rock aquifers can also be affected as recharge of water via precipitation is not possible and the soil above the former water storage will become unstable.

As a result, cities are at risk of excessive flooding and inundation due to sea level rise – all direct consequences of climate change. Development plans and land use planning must be considered along with recommendations after risk hazard assessment to protect these areas and their populations from being adversely affected.

As such, the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR)’s campaign to put in place adaptation and mitigation plans. These include:

1. Organisation and coordination to understand and reduce disaster risk within the local government, based on participation of citizen groups and civil society in local alliances.

2. Assign a budget for disaster risk reduction and provide incentives for investment.

3. Maintain current data on hazards and vulnerabilities and prepare risk assessments as the basis for urban development plans and decisions. This information should be readily available to the public.

4. Invest in and maintain risk-reduction infrastructure, such as flood drainage.

5. Assess the safety of schools and healthcare facilities.

6. Apply and enforce realistic, risk-compliant building regulations and land use planning principles.

7. Ensure education programmes and training on disaster risk in local communities and schools.

8. Protect ecosystems and natural buffers to mitigate floods, storm surges and other hazards.

9. Install early warning systems and emergency management capacities, and hold regular public preparedness drills.

10. After a disaster, ensure that the needs of the affected population are placed at the centre of reconstruction.

Most of these actions have to be undertaken by mayors of municipalities who are able to write legislation to implement steps such as afforestation of mangroves which act as natural buffers against storm surges, or a more efficient way of garbage collection. Singapore relies mostly on concretised, man-made sea walls as a hard engineering technique, and garbage clogging up drains is rumored to be the cause of the infamous Orchard Road floods in earlier 2010.

At the side event at Cancun Messe at COP16, Cities and Climate Change: Enhancing mitigation and adaptation action, several harbingers who are city managers or mayors shared their experiences on greening their city. For example, the Philippines Climate Change Act of 2009 legislated planning and implementation of best practices and other solutions through mandate of the Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act using the Millennium Development Goals fund provided by the Spanish government.

Indeed, the plight of the future does not just affect the farmers, the rich or the young, but everyone. Geographical location, age, gender or nationality is crossed by Mother Nature, and where we cannot prevent, we must provide palliative care.

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