The original version of this article appeared on New Security Beat.

Asia is going through an unprecedented wave of urbanization. Secondary and tertiary cities are seeing the most rapid changes in land-use and ownership, social structures, and values as peri-urban and agricultural land become part of metropolitan cityscapes. All the while, climate change is making many of these fast-growing cities more vulnerable to disasters.

The result is a growing cry among development policymakers to build urban “resilience.” Experience gained through implementation by Mercy Corps, the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition, and our partners across Asia in a variety of programs and projects, however, reveals pitfalls to rushing towards this objective too quickly.

Our research, drawn from work in several cities across South and Southeast Asia, suggests the challenges to building resilience are not technical, but political. Deeply rooted and deeply problematic urban governance issues mean that even mechanisms designed to reach the most marginalized are often easily subverted, allowing elite capture of resources, legitimized by rubber-stamped regulation and decision-making processes.

Cities Already Stressed

Accompanying the switchover to urban living across Asia, people and their economic assets are increasingly concentrated in landscapes that are more vulnerable to weather and climate-related risks, particularly coastal and delta areas.

Global capital flows are funding incredible building efforts in these new cities. Efforts to build resilience should therefore be focused on planning, zoning, and budgeting in ways that maximize safety and minimize environmental vulnerability. But much of the time, we discovered, development is done without adequate oversight.

There are good laws, regulations, and people in place, but they are too often constrained by governance that cannot effectively and fairly reconcile competing needs and interests. Many cities already struggle to maintain core systems and services like water, energy, and transportation. Power cuts and water shortages are frequent, and even in established cities, evidence is mounting that critical ecological limits have been passed.

Preparation for natural disasters is made difficult for a variety of reasons. Stove-piped, single-sector government departments are unable or unwilling to work with one another, making citywide solutions difficult. Land use planning meant to direct construction and zoning frequently reflects decisions that have already been made and implemented in isolation. Short-term outlooks, particularly around election cycles and commercial interests seeking rapid returns on investment, prevent long-term, comprehensive planning.

Confront Power Dynamics or Risk Exacerbating Conflict

Building resilience can also create winners and losers.

For example, it is technically easy to decide that to reduce flood risk, a city should widen and dredge its canals. To do so though, slum communities may have to be moved, and if, as is the case in many places, the people in these communities don’t have formal legal rights to their land, there may be no compensation. At the end of the day, the resilience of central business districts and commercial actors may have been improved but it’s been done without consent from vulnerable communities, further shifting the balance of power and wealth in one group’s favor.

Despite this, we found there is often an implicit assumption by development policymakers that urban governance is representative and accountable. This is simply not true in many Asian cities, and intervening in the name of resilience – particularly by providing finance and support for infrastructure development – has the potential to do significant harm in many places.

Merely adding new funding streams or expanding the capacity of current city governments risks reinforcing undemocratic and inequitable processes. Importantly, particularly in cities where the poor and unemployed make up significant proportions of the population, doing so also risks deepening resentment and increasing the potential for conflict.

Riots, caused by the combination of food price increases and unemployment, were well documented and frequent following the 2007-2008 world food crisis. Other potential triggers for violence lie in the destruction of slums inhabited by untenured residents, either through government policy or environmental changes, like rising sea levels. From India to Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, slum dwellers have been forcibly removed and attacked when they resist, a form of dispossession as a means of accumulation.

Others have noted that the movement of people from crises in rural areas to cities poses significant humanitarian challenges, and combined with climate change, creates the conditions for deadly new pandemics that could trigger follow-on migration or conflict.

Process Before Projects

There are many points of access to build resilience within cities, given the complex socioeconomic and environmental systems on which they are based. But therein lies the core challenge: the selection of entry points is a political decision with deep social implications.

Resilience theory tends not to address issues of power and politics effectively, leading to criticism in the academic literature from some. If we are to apply resilience thinking to the highly politicized and contested context of Asia’s new urban areas, we need to redress this. It is essential that development policymakers recognize the political dimensions of the places they are working in, and make an explicit commitment to rights, social justice, and equity.

By failing to address critical governance gaps, we risk driving policy that might be framed in the language of resilience, but in effect acts against social justice and drives further elite resource capture.

Development practitioners and policymakers need to consider urban governance as a core challenge and within this recognize the need for greater accountability, transparency, and representation. This requires open public dialogue and making critical information about land, current and projected risks, and vulnerabilities more accessible.

Without such clarity, efforts to build resilience in Asia’s cities are likely to simply widen inequality and threaten more explosive confrontation in the future.

Jim Jarvie directs urban resilience work in Asia for Mercy Corps. Richard Friend is a senior staff scientist at the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition. For more, read “Mainstreaming Urban Climate Resilience Into Policy and Planning: Reflections From Asia,” published in ‘Urban Climate’ in March 2014.

Sources: Ambio, The Guardian, Harvey (2003), Human Rights Watch, Mosse (2004), UN-HABITAT, Urban Climate, World Health Organization.

Photo Credit: Jakarta slums, courtesy of flickr user Dan Markeye. Video: Sean Peoples/Wilson Center.