Evidence, urbanisation and ecosystems services in Asia

Takeaways Author: Jim Jarvie Comments
ASIA: Bangladesh, Burma (Myanmar), India, Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam

ACCCRN has commissioned a series of scoping studies supported by our collaborating partner, the Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation programme (ESPA). Taking in perspectives from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, and Vietnam, they give insights into how evidence is used (or not) in urban decision-making in the context of ecosystems hazards and degradation happening as cities expand into their broader surroundings. The papers will be released over the coming weeks, and will further guide and inform the work of ACCCRN’s Urban, Peri-Urban and Ecosystems Working Group.

Land use change underpins urbanisation, the growth of peri-urban areas, and degradation of surrounding ecosystems. Across all countries, concern is increasing about urban expansion into hazardous areas including wetlands, floodplains, coasts and slopes. This conversion is worsening ecosystem-related risks that are in turn being exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Throughout the region, the poor and vulnerable are affected the worst as they rarely possess the means to protect their assets, livelihoods and, in some cases, lives.

A large obstacle to addressing risk to urban resilience from ecosystem threats lies in poor, and sometimes non-existent, government coordination. Gaps exist between city and surrounding ecosystem administrations; government departments within administrations; and between national and sub-national layers of government. Incentives to fill these gaps are few because administrations are confined within their administrative boundaries, with little (if any) requirement to coordinate beyond them; because many cities, and especially the vast number of emerging secondary cities, take short-term approaches to planning and governance based on election and finance cycles; and because of a lack of capacity to understand and prioritise resilience building measures that address ecosystem-related risk.

In Bangladesh, ecosystem hazards largely relate to flooding, drought and other water security issues; landslide; disease vector spread; food security threat. Much urban development is unplanned leading to poor and improper use of land, exacerbated by high rates of in-migration that are not accounted for in planning. Opportunities for research to be mainstreamed and impactful largely exists through donor initiatives focused on climate change and adaptation, donor partners, programmes and projects. Read Bangladesh's report here.

In India, flooding, drought and waterlogging are the major threats that cities face due to degrading ecosystems. Ecosystems in peri-urban areas are also becoming dumping grounds for solid and liquid waste, which contaminate groundwater and further pollute the environment. Deteriorating air quality is increasingly harmful to health. Yet it takes strong incentives to motivate use of objective evidence for decision-making. Despite these and other obstacles, civil society groups are able to use evidence to promote better planning decisions through local, national and international programmes. It is through these agencies and mechanisms that research is most likely to be used to influence decision-making. Read India's report here.

In Indonesia, ecosystem-based threats are numerous and include storms, flood, hazardous air quality (particularly from forest fire and city pollution), and drought.
Yet where evidence is needed to support decision-making, demand follows investment money. There is no significant demand for research from cities. In the few cases where demand is identified, it is usually to support a mayor under socio-political pressure, or from city departments needing evidence to support applications for finance. There is recognition among civil society advocacy groups that academic evidence should be used to support long-term planning and counter short-term policy and finance objectives. Those aiming to mainstream evidence into planning need to obtain political buy-in from decision makers to have any impact on planning. Read Indonesia's report here.

Myanmar is experiencing explosive urban growth, particularly in primary and secondary economic growth centers. Most of these are at significant risk from flooding, earthquakes, with many are regularly impacted by coastal storms. Urban planners rely on international donors to provide the evidence-base for planning decisions rather than researchers. With existing low levels of existing capacity to plan effectively and the funds to finance them, international donors such as JICA and the World Bank have been eager to provide support. Yet this has resulted in solutions largely limited to hard infrastructure investment that fails to address long-term risks to ecosystems and associated socio-economic losses. Read Myanmar's report here.

In Nepal, ecosystem-based threats to urban resilience include restricted clean water access, poor air quality, and flooding. Yet national politicians are largely uninterested in academic evidence to address these issues. Their political advisors may be open to policy advice, if presented in short briefs with targeted facts, recommendations and supporting infographics. There is more openness to accepting evidence among local politicians who are better connected with municipal stakeholders, and related stakeholders may demand evidence for decisions. Evidence is most demanded and used by sectoral civil society groups including those promoting provision of urban services or better forestry practices, whose purpose is to lobby for their interests. Read Nepal's report here.

In Thailand, ecosystem based hazards arise from urban centres expanding into low-lying floodplain, riverine, delta, and other coastal areas. Yet recent flooding events are being used by government to justify plans investment in capital intensive dam projects, which researchers have shown will not work. There is an abundance of evidence to support long-term planning objectives, and finance for infrastructure. Yet planning decisions remain based on obtaining rapid dividends from short-term investment. Researchers can support advocacy for long-term, sustainable development, through sharing learning with local government, stakeholders and civil society groups. Some cities, conducting their own assessments, may seek help from academics and other researchers to help with understanding challenges, and helping communities design their own strategies in response. The question remains of how to scale up success that has been achieved through these channels to national level given the current political context in Thailand. Read Thailand's report here.

In Vietnam, like Thailand, Ecosystem based hazards arise from urban centres expanding into low-lying, floodplain, riverine, delta, and other coastal areas. Research from universities and related institutes is generally not used directly in decision-making. Evidence supporting decision-making is more regularly obtained from consulting company reports linked to fundable projects. Information from these sources are clear, quantitative and actionable. Where researchers have been found to have impact, this has resulted from trusted relationships between researchers who have been able to fund appropriate government bodies, who then take responsibility for disseminating information. Read Vietnam's report here.

Ecosystem-based threats to urban systems are ubiquitous across Asia. The damage inflicted, largely relating to flood and storms, is under-reported. Yet as urban areas expand, particularly into disaster-prone landscapes, and as climate change exacerbates hazard, there will be increasing loss of life, livelihoods and economic assets in the years ahead.

Despite this evidence, there are currently few incentives for governments to treat this with urgency. The reason is that Asian urbanization is driven by short-term, political-economic interests. The patterns of urbanisation arising from these, the hazards they cause, and the appropriation of the planning processes they rely on, might be threatened by evidence from research promoting alternative and inclusive urban resilience that consider related ecosystem services. Where there is demand for research, it is usually selected to support pre-determined investment decisions. This seems to be particularly the case if international finance is involved and environmental safeguards are required (which not all foreign direct investment calls for). Few of these project-based investment decisions are related to systems-based resilience planning. Thus, demand for academic research relating to ecosystems services and urban resilience is severely restricted. Questions therefore emerge about how seriously the research community thinks about the impact of its work, and about assumptions that research-to-policy decisions are simply a matter of communication. Research products and processes have academic value, yet how can these be translated into social value? How do research products relate to better governance and the opening of public dialogue around better investment, planning, and social well-being?

In the short to medium term, the country scoping studies highlight possibilities in at least three areas:

  • In support of international finance flows, both in aid and commercial investment.
  • In support of local government decision-making, where there is political will from government and support from civil society institutions.
  • In support of advocacy movements at local and national scales helping government and business promote resilient and inclusive futures.

In all these areas, for research to have influence and impact, information needs to be channelled through clear delivery pathways and in formats that are easily understood and meet the demands of target audiences.

Over the coming weeks the country reports will be released on the ACCCRN website. ACCCRN hopes they will stimulate discussion and reflection on how to get the evidence and knowledge base of its practitioners better mainstreamed into urban planning, taking into account the peri-urban areas and ecosystems cities sit within, and the communities such planning affects.