The preacher’s new clothes
After leaving the United States to start an international development career in Germany, Sasank Vemuri finds himself this time in Southeast Asia, practicing urban resilience rather than just extolling its principles.
Adaptation is the name of the game for urban resilience professional Sasank Vemuri.
At the tender age of 5, his family left India and moved to the United States. Almost once a year they would go back; and when he became more able, he himself flew to India more frequently. It was this early exposure to two disparate countries that left a strong impression on his mind. “So from when I was pretty young I’ve always wanted to work in development,” Sasank said.
By the time he reached college he decided to take up international studies, specializing in economics and political science, at the Michigan State University. It was also around this period when the Iraq war somewhat influenced development decisions, Sasank recounted. So, he opted for further studies in Germany, where the ministry for development is separate from the foreign ministry, giving it autonomy to make decisions on development assistance. From then on, it was a smooth progression from German-affiliated organizations, starting with GIZ for eight years to the Cities Development Initiative for Asia (CDIA) for two years, and on to ADB as a consultant under the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF) for another two years.
Interestingly, he did not start out with an emphasis on climate change. He did like the environment, he shared, especially trees. “It’s funny. I do love trees but working on urban spaces in Asia you don’t really have that many trees, so I’m basically trying to protect them,” he said jokingly.
Kidding aside, his passion for development took on a shade of green when he began working with India’s National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, while based in New Delhi for GIZ. He was developing new financial products for their environment and climate change sector. Soon after, his work became more targeted.
In July 2017, he formally joined ADB as an urban development specialist under the Southeast Asia Urban and Water Division, transitioning from being an urban resilience specialist in UCCRTF. “I’ve been kind of preaching and talking about urban resilience, so this was my way to see if it’s possible. Honestly, that is why I took the leap.”
Currently, Sasank is implementing 2 loans, 3 grants, and 2 technical assistance projects in Viet Nam, as well as administering one loan and processing one project in Lao PDR. While only six months in to his new role, he’s gradually becoming more at ease with his new working environment. He is motivated with the level of enthusiasm and engagement he’s been receiving from country counterparts. More importantly, he anticipates the day he can develop new projects that integrate the resilience measures he believes in.
“I think there are three main challenges [to implementing resilience.] One is changing mindsets. Second is time horizons, particularly political and budgetary time horizons, and third is resources.”
Urban Development Specialist
Southeast Asia Urban and Water Division
At the risk of sounding absurd, do you believe in climate change?
Sasank: Of course I believe in climate change! But you’re correct in asking this, also especially as an American this is a really relevant question. It’s just sad that you had to ask. It’s like asking if I believe in evolution. There’s so much science that backs up climate change. Still, it’s such a shame that there’s a minority of people who think it’s not real, and that minority is so vocal that this ends up being a legitimate question. It shouldn’t be a question, but it is and fundamentally questioning the legitimacy of what’s really happening with our climate just slows down our action.
So as someone who believes strongly in climate change I feel I should be doing more. At the moment here are the things I do: I walk to work; I try to keep my meat consumption down to once or twice a week, usually chicken so it’s as low as possible in the food chain; and I offset all of my flights. The idea of offsets is you’re coming off at zero, but maybe that’s not enough to make a difference. You want to be reducing your total carbon footprint.
How about in Southeast Asia where you work, is there enough awareness and sense of urgency to do urban resilience?
Sasank: Absolutely, especially in Viet Nam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. If people are not necessarily aware of climate change, they’re absolutely aware of climate variability, right? They can tell that somehow weather patterns are changing and intensities are increasing. In the Philippines, where you’re in the Ring of Fire, there’s this historical experience of impacts, geophysical but also climate-related like typhoons—and people can now sense it’s increasing or worsening. I think the combination of urbanization – urbanization predominantly in places that are hazard-prone – has brought this to the forefront. So even if people are not able to talk about the different levels and projections of the IPCC [or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], they still experience the impacts. Through that there’s a sense of urgency.
A lot of the actions encouraged for urban resilience are almost no-regret options. Let’s say, increase of public transportation. This is good for reducing greenhouse gases, obviously, but it’s also good because you can get to places you want to go to faster and better. There’s also talk about more green spaces in cities to reduce climate hazards like flooding, for example. While this means the city can absorb more water, it also means people have better access to parks. A lot of the actions required might be a bit more expensive at times but I think these increase our quality of life.
That might be easy to say and nice to hear. How hard is it to pull off when doing a project?
Sasank: That’s true, and the way I think about is also the way we have to communicate it. It’s really important to think about all the multiple benefits we can have by working on urban resilience. It’s not just about tackling or protecting ourselves from climate change. The multiple positive benefits can improve the economic return on investments – that’s important for projects that just don’t really add up unless you think about all of the benefits.
Overall I think there are three main challenges. One is changing how we think about urban assets, such as thinking how a park can have multiple uses. That’s it not just a park but it can also be flood retention. The second is time horizons, particularly political and budgetary time horizons. Oftentimes we need to do things that are for short-term gains because there are a lot of pressing problems in a city. The third challenge is resources, both in terms of capacity to think of solutions and the money to fund needed infrastructure or capacity development.
How has it been since you took the switch from consultant to staff in ADB?
Sasank: I was working with the Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund for the past couple of years, supporting operations and trying to include urban resilience principles into projects. When a position opened up I thought it was a good opportunity to see if I could put my money where my mouth is. I’ve been kind of preaching and talking about urban resilience, so this was my way to see if it’s possible. Honestly, that is why I took the leap. To me it was interesting to see whether I can go beyond talking about resilience conceptually and really try to put it in practice.
That said, it has been difficult [laughs]. I’m starting to see where the challenges could be in the processing and implementation stages. It’s like going back to the earlier question you asked, what are the real challenges in doing this. The devil is really in the details.
What excites you about working with cities? And if you could live in any city, where would that be?
Sasank: What doesn’t excite me about cities? I’ve lived in the US, Germany, France, India, and the Philippines, and I’m supposed to be out posted to Viet Nam. When that happens, by the time I hit 40 years of age, I would have lived in six countries.
Now if I could easily find a job, the city I would like to live in the most would be Barcelona. You have nice weather and great food, and since it’s in Europe you have quick access to really cool places. The problem with the ideal scenario is work. There are not a lot of development organizations in Barcelona. My husband also works in development. He works in GIZ. We met at work. I moved to the Philippines first with CDIA, and GIZ supported him in moving here so we could be together. And now that I might be transferring to Viet Nam, GIZ is working with him to move to Viet Nam. It’s a very family-friendly organization. I’m lucky to have a partner who works for an organization that’s supportive of families living together, but even they probably wouldn’t create jobs just so we can live in our dream city!
Here in Manila, what’s a typical day for you like? What do you like to do?
Sasank: I’m a super nerd. I go to bed really early and wake up really early. I wake up at 5:30 a.m. I’m taking some classes at the University of London. I study for an hour and a half before I go to work. I go to the gym. My husband and I have an amazing cook, so we always have a meal prepared for us when we get home. He and I also like to read, and then we just go to bed and start all over again. It really feels like a nice, fulfilled life.