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Resilience challenges for Asia’s small cities

UCCRTF cyclone shelter in Bagerhat, Bangladesh. Credit: UCCRTF

July 2022

On May 20th 2020, Cyclone Amphan hit Bangladesh, causing considerable damage across a swathe of the coastal south-west region of the country. Amphan impacted over 2 million people  in the region, including almost half a million in the districts of Bagerhat and Patuakhali. The ADB’s Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund (UCCRTF) is actively working in both districts to help municipal governments build resilience to climate impacts through investments in infrastructure and institutional capacity development.

UCCRTF provided additional financing of  $6 million to expand the coverage of the BAN: Coastal Towns Environment Infrastructure Improvement Project (CTEIP) in both Bagerhat and Patuakhali. This includes the construction of cyclone shelters, and upgrading of the drainage system and emergency access roads. An integrated drainage plan was also developed for both towns in anticipation of future flooding due to climate change.

The UCCRTF team visited the City of Bagerhat recently to assess the impact of resilience measures in the city and to compare with the baselines measured in 2018. While this work is ongoing, initial findings suggest that investments in climate resilience in Bagerhat and Patuakhali have seen a significant reduction in loss of life, economic damage, transport disruption and infrastructure impacts from recent super-cyclones compared to similar-scale events in the past. Economic modelling for the wider set of secondary cities supported under the CTEIP program indicated that the economic benefits of investments in resilience infrastructure were likely to be approximately double the cost of the investment ($52 million in net present value versus a total cost of $27.6 million).

Investments in Early Warning systems has meant that the loss of life during Cyclone Amphan was greatly reduced. Only 2 people died in Patuakhali and none in Bagerhat, of a total of 26 across Bangladesh. During Cyclone Sidr in 2007, deaths were estimated at 3,406. The UCCRTF-funded Suveccha Government Primary School-cum cyclone shelter, housed 1,200 evacuees during Amphan and the access roads constructed by ADB were allowed access to the shelter throughout the storm.

The devastation caused by extreme events such as Amphan, emphasizes how susceptible many smaller cities are to natural hazards. The work of the UCCRTF also shows that targeted investments in resilience in smaller cities can make a big difference in protecting the lives and livelihoods of vulnerable populations. UCCRTF’s focus on smaller cities is especially impactful as they face a wide range of challenges that make adapting to climate change more difficult than for the world’s megacities.

Challenges for secondary cities

The work of the trust fund in the past eight years has brought to the fore a number of challenges faced by smaller cities in Asia that further compromise their ability to build resilience to climate change impacts:  

  • Existing infrastructure investment gap: As with much of the developing world, secondary cities in Asia suffer from poor quality and inadequate infrastructure. Development is hampered by low capacity for urban planning, procurement, and limited municipal finances for maintenance. This leads to a “vicious cycle” reducing the attractiveness of these cities for businesses and workers and suppressing the tax base with which to finance development investments.

  • Limited capacity for climate-risk informed urban planning: Capacity and financial limitations to financing high-quality climate vulnerability and risk assessments, and developing long-term sustainable urban development plans restrict smaller cities’ ability to attract investment and secure financing for infrastructure investments.

  • Access to data and climate information: Good quality, basic environmental and social data restricts many smaller cities’ ability to effectively plan their development and respond to shocks and stresses. Further, the lack of access to climate information limits their ability to incorporate climate change considerations into their plans.

  • Rapid growth: Many smaller cities are growing at a faster rate than the world’s megacities. Proportionately large increases in population are leading to unplanned growth in areas of the city that are exposed to climate impacts, such as along rivers. Generally weak zoning and building regulations, and limited capacity for enforcement exacerbate the problem.

  • Weak institutional structures: Secondary cities often have overlapping regulatory frameworks and blurred administrative boundaries, which can make decision-making difficult. Conversely, local government departments operate in silos, hampering the cross-sectoral interventions needed to build climate change resilience. Many cities address urban planning and climate risk through separate departments and processes and poor coordination between agencies can result in inefficiencies that put pressure on scarce resources.

Protecting secondary cities has multiple benefits

Overcoming these challenges to support climate-resilient development in Asia’s secondary cities is vital for building climate resilience for large numbers of people. Globally, the cities that are growing fastest are small and medium-sized.[2] Around 75% of the world’s population live in urban settlements of fewer than 500,000 people.[3] As there are large numbers of small cities, this means that it is secondary cities that are expected to drive urban population growth this decade. While megacities are expected to grow by 26% between 2015 and 2030, adding 203 million people, secondary cities will outpace them, growing by around a third (32%), equivalent to a 469 million increase in the overall population.[4] For example, just under half of the 100 million new urban residents expected in India by 2030 will be in mid-sized cities whereas only one-quarter will add to the nation's four megacities — Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore.[5] By 2025-2030, an estimated 630 million people will live in close 40 megacities, whilst over 1 billion people are expected to be living in cities of 1-5 million. However, most of the world's urban population will live in cities of less than 1 million people.[6]

The implication is clear, to build resilience for the greatest number of urban residents over the coming years, our focus should be on supporting secondary cities. But small and medium size cities are also vital contributors to national GDP and support the prosperity of larger urban areas. As the Cities Development Initiative for Asia (CDIA) notes “While secondary cities are responsible for less than 40% of the world’s GDP,[7] they also produce most of the resources that the larger cities and their areas need to operate and develop. Their “behind-the-scenes” support is necessary to boost national economies.”[8]

To help to tackle some of the challenges for building climate resilience in smaller cities in Asia, UCCRTF has promoted a systems approach, leveraging funding to facilitate improved urban planning, deliver impactful investments, and improve the lives of the most vulnerable populations. For example, UCCRTF has supported seven secondary cities to develop clean air action plans to reduce pollution. The plans take a systemic view incorporating solutions that include vegetation and tree planting, public realm improvements as well as initiatives to reduce pollution from traffic and industry. UCCRTF also encourages the use of nature-based solutions for resilience building including in Makassar, Indonesia where UCCRTF helped to improve water supply and sanitation in an informal community using a combination of nature-based solutions and hard infrastructure.

The work of the UCCRTF and similar organizations demonstrates that supporting climate-resilient development at strategic entry points in the infrastructure development cycle can have significant benefits for secondary cities. The challenge is to ensure that such support is scaled up across the many thousands of small cities across Asia.



[2] Small being under 500,000 inhabitants, Medium being between 500,000 and 5 million as per Birkmann, J., Welle, T., Solecki, W. et al. Boost resilience of small and mid-sized cities. Nature 537, 605–608 (2016).

[3] Cities Alliance (2020)

[4] Birkmann, J., Welle, T., Solecki, W. et al. Boost resilience of small and mid-sized cities. Nature 537, 605–608 (2016).

[5] Birkmann, J., Welle, T., Solecki, W. et al. Boost resilience of small and mid-sized cities. Nature 537, 605–608 (2016).

[6] ESPAS (2019) Global Trends to 2030 : The future of urbanization and Megacities:



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