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Transforming Adaptation to Climate Change in Coastal Cities: Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta - Event Brief 07, August 2019

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Flooding is increasing in frequency and magnitude in coastal cities around the world, causing tremendous human and material losses. In many cities of the Global South, inequalities and informality represent further urban development challenges that compound the impacts of climate change. Transformative adaptation is one possible pathway forward, taking climate change as an opportunity to tackle root causes of poverty, inequality and environmental degradation. Towards this end, policy and decision makers must ask: What does transformative adaptation look like on the ground? What are the visions, opportunities, and challenges for policy change for transformative adaptation in coastal cities?

Moving Towards Transformative Adaptation

Despite the knowledge of the scale and urgency of climate change, current climate action is insufficient to tackle its impacts. Poor and marginalized people often suffer disproportionately from climate change and, in some cases, climate adaptation measures. In Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City, dwellers of slums and informal settlements along waterfronts and canals are especially vulnerable to increased flooding. As a result of urbanization driven by private development and adaptation driven by “hard” solutions, they are also subjected to displacement and relocation, and hence livelihood disruption.

Transformative adaptation involves fundamental changes. Its approach goes beyond technical solutions to reduce hazard exposure and addresses processes and structures that exacerbate vulnerabilities. Transformative adaptation requires inclusive visions for the future, justice-driven values, and diverse voices; its processes involve practical, technical and personal solutions. For Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City, it would include just and sustainable processes ensuring that dwellers of informal settlements receive recognition, access to public services, and the rights to housing. However, much effort in adaptation and urban development in both cities has resulted in the displacement, and hence livelihood disruption, of informal settlement residents. Transformative adaptation recognizes positive aspects of urban informality and sees relocation only as a last resort.

Current Adaptation Approaches

Spatial and socio-economic planning in Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City have built in climate change adaptation. With past and current adaptation strategies focused on reducing hazard exposure, much investment has gone into hard infrastructure such as dykes, sluice gates and seawalls. In Jakarta, adaptation also takes the form of mega-projects. The proposed Great Garuda project in North Jakarta, a mixed-use complex on reclaimed land, is an example. This project was canceled after a variety of protests and concerns regarding its feasibility.

Highly vulnerable to floods, informal settlements have received little attention in these planning and adaptation efforts. In many cases in both cities, informal dwellers have benefited little from hard infrastructural development. In others, they have suffered from its adverse impacts. They are often left to improvise their own short-term and spontaneous coping strategies at the household and community levels.