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Contributed by: Richard Friend, Senior Scientist, ISET-Thailand

In August 2012, the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), a regional program funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, brought representatives of cities from Vietnam to Thailand, to learn from the experience of the floods of 2011 that inundated several provinces in the Chao Praya Basin with devastating consequences.

The ACCCRN: Learning from Thailand’s Floods video captures this exchange. The countries have much in common. Vietnam has its own experience of heavy flooding, and like Thailand, is rapidly forging a path of urbanisation and industrialisation. The exchange allowed the cities to consider some of the root causes of the surrounding risks of flooding together, while also considering options for building resilience to future climate change. In particular the meeting raised the challenge of how to deal with a natural cycle of flooding, and the role that large scale infrastructure might play.

In Thailand, much of the response to the flooding crisis of 2011 has been to build protection walls. As participants pointed out, as these walls get ever higher and ever longer they create their own new risks of failing and intensifying the flooding, and of deflecting the problem onto people in other places while not adequately addressing the underlying causes of the problem. Participants were reminded of the need to understand the natural cycle of water, the influence of land use change and critically to reconsider the kind of future world we want to create.

As SE Asia rapidly transforms from a largely rural, agricultural society, cities (their governments, residents, businesses and civil society groups) will have an increasingly important role to play in shaping the future. Much of the urbanisation that is occurring now is happening with only limited planning, and little consideration of what the future will be like. Cities are growing beyond their own natural constraints, transforming landscapes in ways that are already creating problems.

As the effects of climate change become more apparent, scientists warn that these problems will intensify. Much of the impact of climate change will be felt through water—too much or too little, or at the wrong time—as the number of users and demand among competing uses increases, and water quality declines. Climate change will create a world of uncertainty where the climate of the future is very different from the climate of the past, becoming increasingly variable. Additionally the risks of climate change impacts—with more people and assets concentrated in cities—will be all the greater.

But we must be reminded that cities are also centres of innovation and creativity. The more urbanised we become the more the decisions that affect our lives will be made by cities at this local level. By building platforms to bring cities together to share experiences, knowledge, and ideas provides a new opportunity to learn from past mistakes and create a new common, resilient urban future.

For more information on flooding in Asia and ISET-International’s shared learning dialogues, please see these suggested materials:

Changing Cities and Changing Climate: Insights from Shared Learning Dialogues in Thailand and Vietnam

Understanding the Economics of Flood Risk Reduction: A Preliminary Analysis

Living with Floods: A Grassroots Analysis of the Causes and Impacts of Typhoon Miranae