Climate-accelerated disasters pose a growing threat to cities around the world. Argentina’s capital
Buenos Aires suffered record-breaking heatwaves in December 2021 that left 700,000 people without electricity. Swathes of the northwest coast of the US burnt in disastrous fires in 2021, highlighting the vulnerability of urban centres such as Los Angeles.
Kuala Lumpur is not exempt. The devastating floods of December 2021 raise the importance of thinking about climate change.
A recent analysis of climate risks to major urban centres shows 99 out of the 100 top at-risk cities are in Asia. KL’s own risk is ranked as “high”, demonstrating a fact that we have all grown to recognise — between unprecedented flooding, seasonal haze and rising temperatures, KL needs to take steps to increase its resilience in a world facing a climate crisis.
Changing direction and fighting the flow
Climate action is typically characterised as either mitigation or adaptation. Mitigation includes efforts to slow climate change, while adaptation is about evolving our environments to live with this threat. If mitigation can be said to focus on reducing rising waters, adaptation is about finding ways to stay resilient and co-exist with the inevitable impact.
Cities around the globe are taking steps to adjust to this new world. London runs routine tests of its Thames Barrier to ensure it remains ready to prevent flooding during high-water events. Singapore has announced a S$100 billion (RM311 billion) plan to adapt and live with climate change.
Despite their importance, adaptation efforts are often neglected amid bold ambitions for mitigation. In 2020, global climate funding stood at US$625 billion, but only 8% of that went into adaptation activities. Fewer than 30 countries have prepared national adaptation plans, compared with more than double who have national mitigation plans in place. We need to learn to live and work in that changing environment.
Kuala Lumpur stands at a crossroads
Kuala Lumpur quite literally stands at a crossroads, situated proudly at the confluence of Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak. Its rise from an unknown tin mining village in the early 20th century to a shining beacon of multicultural metropolitan Malaysia today reflects a remarkable evolution. It’s that spirit of transformation that we must bring to bear once more.
Interventions to mitigate KL’s contribution to climate change are already under way, framed by the Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2050 published by DBKL. It champions improved efficiency of buildings, renewable electricity generation and sustainable mobility such as electric vehicles.
While mitigation efforts are relatively mature, accelerating adaptation action is critical if we are to ensure a resilient urban environment. CAP 2050 highlights three key climate hazards to the city and its residents — heat, flood and drought. These are not hypotheticals. We can see the cruel impact in the lives lost in the recent floods, and the tens of thousands of citizens displaced from their homes. We can see it in the persistent water shortages experienced over recent years.
Peak surface temperatures in KL increased by 1.64°C over the last 30 years, according to local sustainability think tank Think City. However we look at it, that is an alarming change. While initiatives have been raised to address this resilience gap, analysis shows less than a fifth have been launched with actionable progress.
Diverse set of stakeholders will be critical in meeting this challenge
Local authorities should tap the growing global momentum for resilient urban environments. The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) is expected to focus heavily on adaptation and resilience. Local authorities can ride this wave to embrace global success strategies, at the same time crowdsourcing innovative ideas and funding opportunities from participants both domestic and global.
Businesses have a big role to play. Investments in resilience have historically been considered as public goods. However, opportunities are emerging for non-state actors to participate in cracking the problem, while making a profit. Resilient infrastructure, distributed energy, water efficiency, precision agriculture and climate analytics are just a few sectors that are expected to grow.
Society must rethink the way it works and lives. For example, we need to find better ways to cool down. As KL gets hotter, air conditioning gets cranked up. But in turn, as more air conditioning is blasted out, the faster our world warms. Breaking this cycle requires a shift towards more thoughtful architectural design, taking advantage of natural ventilation and wind patterns.
Overall, we must shift to a proactive stance from our reactive position. We need an ecosystem between public authorities, the private sector and civil society that focuses on prevention, preparedness and recovery.
This template has demonstrated success in the US city of New Orleans. Insurer Swiss RE, utility management company Veolia, municipal authorities and the Rockefeller Foundation designed steps — informed through public interviews — to provide critical adaptation infrastructure in the wake of the devastating Hurricane Katrina.
This private-public-civil society partnership undertook a detailed risk analysis of flooding and the resilience of the water supply in the face of another major weather event. It resulted in significant changes to water networks in vulnerable neighbourhoods. Six months later, when major flooding occurred, Veolia engineers had action plans on how to respond, reducing flooding in these neighbourhoods and minimising interruption to businesses.
KL lacks any at-scale examples of collaborative adaptation efforts involving all stakeholders to date. But 30 years ago, it didn’t have the majesty of the Petronas Twin Towers either. This is a city with a proud history of establishing a vision, a commitment to delivering on it, and the collaboration to achieve it.
What’s next for Kuala Lumpur?
In 1952, when KL’s first municipal election was held, the population was approximately 250,000. Today, over 1.8 million citizens call this wonderful city home. That growth demonstrates the vibrant evolution of KL. Who could have imagined that a muddy, unknown backwater would transform into Malaysia’s epicentre for education, employment, commerce and entertainment?
As we mark the 48th anniversary of Federal Territory Day, let us consider what the future might look like for our city. What gives us hope is our track record of transformation, and a belief that once more, KL can stay resilient and thrive in a dynamic modern world.
Zarif Munir is managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group. Stefanie Khaw is principal at Boston Consulting Group.