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Building Greater Resilience Crucial in Achieving Sustainable Growth for Asia

Long-term solutions, collaboration, and planning for resilience amid population growth, scarce resources, and climate-related disasters like Supertyphoon Haiyan are key to achieving sustainable development and growth in Asia, said environment, urban planning, and energy experts who gathered Thursday in the Philippines.  (See related, “Q&A With Philippines Climate Envoy Who’s Fasting After Super Typhoon Haiyan.”)

Thought leaders at the Powering Progress Together forum in Manila also agreed that it’s time to get serious about the increasing pressure on energy, water, and food—the resource “stress nexus” that threatens billions of lives. (See related post: “Father Jett: Voice for University and Youth Action on Climate.”)

The forum, sponsored by Shell,* brought together more than 300 global experts to discuss actions the countries and people of Asia can take to address threats to energy, water, and food resources. The gathering was planned long before Haiyan, but the typhoon’s devastating path across the Philippines three months ago and the difficult continuing recovery were important backdrops for the session. As with Haiyan, poor communities are bearing the greatest impact of planetary stresses.  (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.”)

Uplifting the lives of the poor people and nurturing communities are ways to bring positive change to a society, said Antonio Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga, a Philippines-based poverty alleviation organization that has been active in disaster relief and rebuilding efforts.

“This country has no excuse to be poor,” said Meloto. “We are poor simply because we keep leaving the poor behind . . . It is a simple case of disconnection.”

Meloto stressed that collaboration and innovation are keys to a better, more sustainable society. Together, he said, they “will make this world better because you have have given people a vision that together we can end poverty and power progress,” he said.

Proper urban planning can help to create liveable, sustainable cities, said Julian Goh, acting director of the Singapore-based Centre for Liveable Cities. He listed practical suggestions such as using renewable energy like solar; producing food the high-rise way; using bicycles and walking for transport; and bringing back biodiversity in cities.

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Julian Goh of the Centre for Liveable Cities (Photograph courtesy Shell/Flickr)

The daylong event kicked off Shell Eco-marathon Asia 2014, a annual student fuel-efficiency contest that is being held for the first time in Manila. Several speakers identified challenges for businesses, governments, and civil society groups seeking to collaborate at the regional level.

“Stresses are deeply troubling, but progress is feasible if political and social choices can harness technology and markets to improve resilience,” said Jeremy Bentham, Shell’s vice president for global business environment. “Tomorrow’s success depends on how well business, government, and society collaborate today.”

According to the United Nations, the number of people living in cities around the world is set to rise from 3.6 billion in 2010 to 6.3 billion by 2050, with much of that increase happening in Asia.

Such rapid population growth presents economic opportunities, but at the same time creates a huge strain on the resources that are essential for well-being and prosperity.

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Jeremy Bentham of Shell (Photograph courtesy Shell/Flickr)

Bentham said that by 2030, the world would need 40 to 50 percent more energy, water, and food to meet rising demand and increased population. The stress on each resource builds stress on other resources, he said, as more energy is required to move and treat water, and water is required to produce energy, and both energy and water are required to produce more food.

Shell Chief Financial Officer Simon Henry said long-term solutions are needed.

“There are steps that we can take to tackle this,” Henry said. “For one thing we can embrace more innovative urban planning [and] integrate more efficient transport systems using fuels like natural gas.” He stressed the importance of collaboration among governments, business, and civil society.

“Resilience” was the forum’s buzzword.

“Resilience is largely about learning how to change in order not to be changed,” explained Brian Walker of Australia, who chairs the board of the International Resilience Alliance, a research group that works on sustainability of social-ecological systems. “It calls for embracing uncertainty in building systems that will be safe when they fail, rather than trying to build fail-safe systems.”

According to Walker, resilience is found in systems that are highly diverse, modular, responsive to change, and innovative. They have access to social capital, and their governance is adaptive and distributed.

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan and its 6,000 fatalities, climate expert Gemma Narisma of the Manila Observatory said resilience can be improved by understanding the science, reducing risk, and responding effectively to calamities. (See related post: “Manila Observatory: Front-Line View of Climate Change.”)

“There is a need for us to enhance our resilience and reduce the risk posed by climate change,” Narisma said. The Manila Observatory works with local governments and institutions “and we let science reach the people as we believe that scientific information can be evidence for governments to plan properly to reduce hazards.”

The observatory’s research shows that most of the destructive, high-impact typhoons in the Philippines have occurred since the 1980s. Narisma urged governments to pursue resiliency and disaster-preparedness programs.

“We are at risk with disasters, even without global warming,” said Narisma. “We have monsoons, we have hazards, coupled with exposure and vulnerability, we are at risk [for] disasters. So what does a globally warmer world mean for the Philippines? It means that we will have more intense typhoons, that [it] is more likely than not we will have extreme heavy rain events, and will have enhanced monsoon systems, and that increases our risk [for] disasters.”

Narisma added that “the country’s exposure and vulnerability in this globally warmer world, being among the top ten countries with very high population in no-elevation coastal zones, dramatically increases [our exposure to disasters.]”

Philippine landscape architect and urban planner Paulo Alcazaren offered three solutions for sustainability amid increasing urbanization:

  • Changing the paradigms of corporate and public responsibility, with an emphasis on accountability and transparency

  • Changing urban governance frameworks and situating these within larger natural contexts, while at the same time building smarter, denser, people-centered cities

  • Changing from backward mitigation and risk management to forward, participatory, inclusive planning

“There is … room for change,” Alcazaren said. “[C]ities are our future. We must build cities according to our own vision and our definition of what our urbanism and our citizenship will become.”

Imelda V. Abano, founder and president of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists, is reporting from Manila.

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.