Adapting to Climate Change in Developing Countries

New York Law Journal

October 8, 2010

Despite repeated calls, beginning at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and continuing through last December’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, for the United States and other developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20-25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, it is now apparent that the U.S. will not even begin that effort for some years to come. (Total U.S. GHG emissions have risen by about 14 percent since 1990.) As a result, other developed countries and the major “emerging economies” (China, India, Brazil, South Africa and others) will be free from any near-term pressure to match the U.S. in implementing GHG reductions.

It is more than 15 months since the House of Representatives narrowly passed the Waxman-Markey climate change bill in June 2009. The Senate has twice failed to move forward on similar legislation, the last version of which, the Kerry-Lieberman bill, was far less ambitious than the House bill. Moreover, the prolonged U.S. recession, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the coming midterm elections have led the Obama administration to virtually abandon its public references to climate change, which has taken a back seat to efforts to deal with regulatory reform, unemployment benefits, “energy independence,” jobs, tax policy, the Middle East and Tea Party fixation.

Only the Environmental Protection Agency under Lisa Jackson has remained in the climate change debate, and its proposed regulations to limit GHG emissions from power plants and industrial facilities are certain to be challenged in Congress and court. Even if upheld, those regulations are likely to be phased in gradually over the next decade.

Nor is the United States alone in downgrading climate change in order to deal with more pressing domestic issues. The European Union, long the world’s leader in championing GHG reductions, has been distracted by the urgent need to prevent the collapse of its common currency and its members’ economies, while China and India have made clear that economic development, energy independence and localized pollution all take precedence over efforts to reduce their contributions to global GHGs.

In short, the likelihood that the world will actually reduce GHG emissions 50 percent by mid-century is becoming increasingly remote. Since the GHGs emitted today will remain active, on average, for close to a century, the prospects for avoiding significant adverse consequences from climate change over the balance of the 21st century are now bleak. (Indeed, some responsible scientists believe that the Earth is rapidly approaching a “tipping point” at which, absent more stringent GHG reductions than have been proposed by any government, the continued warming of the atmosphere and oceans will make it difficult for civilization to survive in its current locations and configurations.)

What makes this so difficult to address politically, and so indefensible morally, is that the principal victims of climate change will not be residents of the developed countries responsible for most of the current warming of the atmosphere and oceans. The principal victims of that warming are almost certain to be residents of developing countries that contributed little to the problem and can do little on their own to solve it.

Under these circumstances, it is understandable that developing countries have begun to turn their attention to adapting to the now inevitable effects of climate change, rather than to preventing (or “mitigating”) those impacts. Climate change is likely to exacerbate a broad range of environmental, health and economic conditions, including flooding, drought, soil erosion, destruction of cropland, homes and infrastructure, and inadequate public and private institutions to respond to those challenges.

This column focuses on the need for adaptation policies and programs in the developing world’s rapidly growing cities, whose populations already rival or exceed the largest U.S. cities. Future columns will deal with adaptation aimed at preserving developing countries’ agriculture in the face of climate change, assisting the growing number of domestic and international refugees driven from their land by the absence of water and other climate change impacts, and potential options for paying for that adaptation.

Cities Adapting

With assistance from the Clinton Climate Initiative, many of the world’s major cities have created a “C40” network to share information about their efforts to reduce GHG emissions and adapt to climate change. The goals of C40 are not only to develop a set of “best practices” for cities facing common problems (and opportunities) in limiting GHGs, but also to emphasize the need for national governments and international agencies to provide financial assistance for the cities’ efforts.

Many of these programs are described on the C40 Web site ( or in the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) prepared by developing countries under the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Among the most comprehensive of the C40 plans, both with respect to GHG reduction and adaptation, is New York City’s Climate Change Adaptation in New York City: Building a Risk Management Response (available at New York’s Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, also chairs the C40 initiative.

New York City, though, has the resources to identify precisely the threats that sea level rise, stormwater surges, short-term drought and other consequences of climate change present to the city’s residents and infrastructure. The city also has well-developed land-use, environmental, planning and judicial institutions and access to both financial markets and trained personnel to carry out its adaptation plans. As discussed below, many cities in developing countries lack these resources and, despite recognizing the risks, are unable to implement their climate change adaptation plans.

Cape Town (South Africa)

In 2006, two years after South Africa published its national climate change plan, Cape Town published its city specific plan, Framework for Adaptation to Climate Change in the City of Cape Town (FAC4T), which applies the principles outlined in the national plan to Cape Town[1] and outlines a five-year integrated development plan with the twin goals of creating a sustainable city and reducing the threats from climate change and natural disasters.[2]

Cape Town has over 190 miles of coastline, making it particularly susceptible to rising sea level. The city is already subject to droughts and water shortages that will become worse if, as expected, climate change reduces the area’s annual precipitation. Cape Town is the first major urban area in South Africa where the demand for water is projected to exceed supply. Even with a new water supply project, demand is projected to exceed water availability around 2013. Although this condition is largely the result of Cape Town’s rapid growth (it has doubled in size since 1990), climate change has exacerbated the shortage. South Africa has experienced several droughts that were attributed in part to climate change, most recently in 2004-2005.

The “right to water” is constitutionally protected in South Africa.[3] However, a recent Constitutional Court decision gave municipalities discretion to determine what constitutes sufficient water.[4] The national plan suggests several methods for adapting to the projected water shortage, including restricting traditional riparian rights, mandatory water-saving devices, pressure management systems that lower water pressure during low demand periods, tradable water permits, and wind-turbine powered desalination plants.

Cape Town also faces severe threats from flooding due to sea level rise and storm surges. The city has experienced damaging floods in the past decade, and these events are expected to increase. The city is creating a coastal vulnerability map, which will show the areas that need breakwaters and sea walls. Some areas, however, may be difficult to save. The FAC4T cites two neighborhoods, Woodbridge Island in Milnertown and Muizenberg in False Bay, that are particularly susceptible to sea level rise and suggests that whatever infrastructure is lost in these neighborhoods should not be replaced. The FAC4T does not indicate how, or even whether, affected residents would be relocated or compensated in any way.

Cape Town must also address the threats that climate change poses to its plant and animal populations, including the anticipated contraction of its coastal “fynbos” and estuaries. The city is considering increasing efforts to eradicate alien plant invasions, monitoring indicator species and populations, and increasing the size of its more than 30 nature reserves and natural areas.[5]

Dakar (Senegal)

Senegal is located in Western Africa, just south of the Sahara. Most of the country is in the western Sahel, which has for two decades experienced rapid decertification and now faces the prospect of prolonged droughts. Senegal also has a long Atlantic coast, and much of its coast, including Dakar, faces the threat of rising sea level and consequent salination of groundwater, destruction of mangroves and erosion. The most pressing upland concern is drought and its implications for drinking water and crop irrigation. The continuing depletion of fishing stocks affects the entire nation.

Senegal published its NAPA in 2006.[6] In 2009, the World Bank published its own pilot study on “Preparing to Manage Natural Hazards and Climate Change Risks in Dakar, Senegal.”[7] Dakar was also the site of an international colloquium titled “Adaptation to Climate Change” in July 2010.

To increase available water supply, Senegal’s NAPA proposes new dykes, dams and groundwater recharge areas. However, Dakar’s water supply is especially sensitive to contamination as it is close to the surface, making it susceptible to pollution from malfunctioning sanitary systems and domestic wastewater. Droughts coupled with a rising sea level have accelerated salination of aquifers, further decreasing available water.

Paradoxically, rural droughts are also contributing to flooding in Dakar. As more farmers abandon their land and migrate to the capital, Dakar’s permeable land areas are converted to housing and other uses that reduce the area’s recharge capacity and overwhelm the city’s drainage system.

Fragmented local and regional governments and lax law enforcement has made it difficult to address these challenges. According to the U.N. report, no less than six departments at the national level are involved with flooding. This inevitably frustrates municipal as well as national planning and the implementation of the array of measures that the Dakar government has recognized as essential in the next decade.

Dhaka (Bangladesh)

Of all non-island states, Bangladesh faces the most severe threats from climate change. The country, therefore, focused early on adaptation, recognizing that even the most aggressive climate mitigation plans could not shield it from the near-certain consequences of flooding and sea level rise. Bangladesh has generated substantial international support for its climate change adaptation plans.[8] There is, however, considerable debate as to the role of the World Bank in disbursing this assistance.

After extreme flooding in 1987-88, the government of Bangladesh prepared a flood protection and drainage plan for the Greater Dhaka area. Flood protection measures for the western half of Dhaka city (some 87 percent of the population in 1998) included 30 kilometers of earthen embankment along the Tongi canal and the Turag and Buriganga Rivers; 37 kilometers of raised roads and floodwalls; 11 regulators along the embankment of the canals to surrounding rivers; and pumping stations for draining stormwater from parts of Dhaka West. These efforts helped to protect more than half of Dhaka from devastating floods in 1998 and 2004. In order to improve the city’s natural drainage system, the municipal government has also attempted repeatedly to evict residents from the many canals and adjacent lands illegally occupied by them.

Bangladesh’s 2009 climate Action Plan sets forth a number of goals for its adaptation program, including community participation in coastal afforestation; alternative sources of safe drinking water through rain water harvesting and surface and ground water treatment; integrating climate change in the planning and designing of infrastructure; water zoning; emergency preparedness information for vulnerable communities; and insurance for climate-enhanced disasters. Whether these ambitious plans can be realized, however, remains to be seen.

Maputo (Mozambique)

Mozambique has approximately 2,700 kms of coastline, making it highly susceptible to sea level rise and flooding. Maputo, the capital, is located on the coast in the southern region of the country, in an area highly prone to flooding and, at the same time, highly subject to droughts. (One of Mozambique’s problems is that most of its river basins originate in neighboring countries, making Mozambique reliant on its neighbors for much of its fresh water.) Its coastal location means that Maputo’s freshwater sources are also subject to saltwater intrusion.[9]

Mozambique published its NAPA in December 2007. Although the government has not published a specific Maputo plan, there are provisions in the national plan that address the capital. Maputo’s Municipal Council has alsoidentified areas where the city is vulnerable to all three water-related threats (heavy rains, cyclones, and sea level rise) but has yet to identify concrete ways to adapt to these problems. Sea level rise is already creating significant problems for the city, including salination of its water supply. Any further rise in sea level is expected to flood the low lying areas of the city, as occurred in 2000 and 2001.

As a result of the 2000 floods, and in anticipation of further sea level rise due to climate change, the Mozambique government has begun relocating people. The NAPA calls for building new villages that are planned to withstand flooding. Villagers move to the new settlement and retain ownership of their original land to continue to farm it.[10] However, many of these efforts to relocate people living in hazardous areas have proven unsuccessful because of a lack of jobs in the vicinity, so that relocated residents often return to their former homes in flood-prone neighborhoods. Until the government is able to ensure that people can live successfully in their new homes, any relocation attempts may well be unsuccessful.

In 2004 the Ministry for the Co-ordination of Environmental Affairs (MICOA) published a report “Learning to Live with the Floods.” The report laid out steps to make floods less deadly, including creating an early warning system. The report also examined mitigation efforts that might be undertaken (rezoning slums, improving sanitation, improving construction in areas prone to floods, and reducing deforestation), though it is not clear how many of these steps have actually been taken.

Finally, Maputo has adopted a 10-year development plan (PROMAPUTO), which is divided into two stages (2007-2009 and 2010-2016). The first stage seeks to strengthen the city’s institutions and finances so that it can undertake more ambitious programs. The second stage focuses on improving the city’s infrastructure (drainage systems, roads, and coastal protection) to better handle climate-driven events.

In 2008, the city approved an Urban Master Plan identifying areas of Maputo that are sensitive to climate change and could be modified in anticipation of future events. Mozambique’s National Disaster Management Institute and the National Meteorology Institute are also creating a New Early Warning System/Warning of Tropical Cyclones to warn the public of imminent cyclones. However, this program too has been stymied by a lack of financial resources, and little progress has been made.

Port-au-Prince (Haiti)

Haiti is extremely susceptible to climate-related problems because of its geography and land-use patterns. The main natural risks are hurricanes, floods, droughts, landslides, tidal waves and earthquakes. Human hazards include deforestation, unregulated urban growth, insufficient sanitation systems and improper sandpits. Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital and largest city, is located on a bay in the middle of the country. The city’s population has long experienced rapid unregulated growth in its hillside slums. A large portion of the city’s infrastructure was destroyed or damaged in the January 2010 earthquake, which killed untold numbers of residents and forced many of the survivors to leave the city in search of food and shelter.

Haiti was required to, and did, publish a NAPA in 2006 addressing climate change.[11] The NAPA summarized the problems facing the country as a result of climate change, and listed several potential projects to help adapt to global warming. The viability of that NAPA is now questionable. In March 2010, Haiti issued a redevelopment plan titled “Action Plan for National Recovery and Development of Haiti: Immediate Key Initiatives for the Future” in March 2010.[12] The National Recovery plan recognized that there are several areas where Haiti was vulnerable. Prior to the earthquake, Port-au-Prince represented 65 percent of Haiti’s economic activity. In order to mitigate the risks from a future disaster, the redevelopment plan calls for the creation of development centers throughout the country to disperse its economic activities. Although the National Recovery plan calls for sustainable development and better distribution of resources, it does not mention the NAPA or the Ministry of Environment.

Preliminary Lessons

It is too early to draw firm conclusions regarding either the preferred adaptation practices for developing country cities confronting the effects of climate change or to identify the principal obstacles facing cities that attempt to do so. However, this brief survey of cities facing severe climate change impacts does suggest several preliminary conclusions.

  1. Water: Because so many major cities are located on coastlines, estuaries or rivers, rising sea levels and more intense storms will increasingly threaten residents’ homes and critical urban infrastructure, even as potable water supplies are depleted, polluted or exposed to salt water. These conditions will require coastal protection through both natural and engineering measures, relocation of vulnerable neighborhoods and municipal facilities and aggressive measures to allocate potable water on a basis that is both equitable and sustainable.
  2. Land-Use Controls: Urban adaptation to climate change requires effective land-use controls, informed long-range planning and significant municipal investments in order to minimize required residential (and other) relocations, maintain soil permeability and drainage systems, protect coastlines and protect the public health. Failure to plan for urban migration, adopt and enforce land-use controls and establish contingency plans to deal with foreseeable natural disasters can leave a city, and a nation, overwhelmed and unable to care for its citizens.
  3. Institutional Capability: Flood control measures, potable water allocations and effective land-use planning require highly competent municipal and regional institutions, including an independent judiciary to settle the broad array of competing claims necessary to resolve in implementing climate adaptation plans.
  4. Financing: Without significant financial assistance, few, if any, of these adaptation measures can be implemented. Even New York City requires (as did New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina) state and national assistance to carry out its adaptation plan. Unless the international community makes available the very large sums now required for developing country cities to develop and carry out comparable adaptation plans designed to meet their individual needs, it is unlikely that those cities will be able to deal successfully with the inevitable challenges that lie ahead. 

Stephen L. Kass

This article is reprinted with permission from the October 8, 2010 issue of the New York Law Journal  © 2010 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.


[1] Pierre Mukheibir & Gina Ziervogel, Framework for Adaptation to Climate Change in the City of Cape Town (2006) (hereinafter FAC4T), available at:

[2] A copy of the current five-year plan is available on the City of Cape Town’s website at:

[3] S. Afr. Const. 1996, Ch. 2 §27(1)(b) grants everyone the right to have access to “sufficient food and water,” available at:

[4] Mazibuko and Others v. City of Johannesburg and Others (CCT 39/09) [2009] ZACC 28, Polity (Oct. 8, 2009), available at:

[5] City of Cape Town, Envtl. Res. Mgmt., available at:

[6] Ministere de l’Env’t et de la Prot. de la Nature, Plan d’Action Nat’l pour l’Adaptation aux Changements Climatiques (2006) (hereinafter Senegal NAPA), available at:

[7] World Bank, Preparing to Manage Natural Hazards and Climate Change Risks in Dakar, Senegal: A Spatial and Institutional Approach (2009), available at:

[8] On May 30-31, 2010, the Asia Regional Conference was held in Dhaka. (See Global Climate Change Alliance, Declaration on Climate Change Between the European Union and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, The Kingdom of Cambodia, and the Republic of Maldives, (May 2009), available at: At the conference, Bangladesh, Cambodia and the Maldives signed an agreement with the Global Climate Change Alliance (GCCA) which pledged to support implementation of the 2009 Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan. This support will focus mainly on finance and transfer of technology in achieving energy security along a low carbon path and will support adaptation strategies in agriculture, food security, natural disaster preparedness, etc. Bangladesh is also set to receive 8.5 million euros from the EU, which will go into the Bangladesh Climate Change Resilient Fund.

[9] Maputo Climate Change Assessment at 8.

[10] Mozambique NAPA at 22.

[11] Ministère de l’Envt., Plan d’Action Nat’l d’Adaptation 8 (2006) (hereinafter Haiti NAPA).

[12] Available at:

is a partner at Carter Ledyard & Milburn and co-director of the firm’s environmental practice group. He is an adjunct professor of international environmental law at Brooklyn Law School. Law students Madelyn White and Jonathan King assisted in the research for this column.

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