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Asia

Growing risks facing South Asia's megacities

The South Asian megacities of Karachi, Delhi or Dhaka are the fastest-growing conurbations in the world. This rapidly increasing urbanization poses more and more risks to people and society.

Dhaka is one of the fastest growing megacities in the world

Dhaka is one of the fastest growing megacities in the world

Dhaka, one of the fastest growing megacities in the world with a population of more than 13 million, has recently been ranked as the most vulnerable city in the world to the impact of climate change.

But, as Wolfgang-Peter Zingel from the University of Heidelberg explains, this is not the only environmental risk that people living in Bangladesh's capital face. "The risk can be change in the micro-climate - for example of having too much pollution. And Dhaka and Bangladesh are perfect examples for it. Especially in the winter, where almost everybody is suffering from some pain in the chest because of the tremendous air pollution, and you cannot escape. People cannot walk out, they are afraid to let their children play outside because there is so little public space, the traffic becomes dangerous."

Bangladeshi boatmen row through the polluted waters in Dhaka

Bangladeshi boatmen row through the polluted waters in Dhaka

Poor people under constant threat

Benjamin Etzold from the University of Bonn explains that the risks are not limited to climate change or pollution. Many other people are vulnerable in South Asia's megacities, "the middle class is always at risk that their wages are not sufficient to buy a TV or a fridge. It's of course a quite different risk that a slum dweller is facing when a flood is coming, or being evicted by the police or being beaten up by more powerful people or criminals. Women face quite different risks of exclusion, of no access to education for young girls."

Growing slums

Clearly, one of the biggest problems of the megacities are the ever growing slums. It is estimated that Karachi's Orangi Town is currently the largest slum in South Asia, leaving the Dharavi slum in Mumbai behind. All over South Asia, the slum dwellers receive very little or no support from the government for their welfare.

Wolfgang-Peter Zingel says the urban poor have had to learn to cope with all kinds of risks themselves. "They simply do not have a choice. Because there is no exact strategy for it. There is no social policy coming into it, so they cope with it. Bangladesh with regular floods is a perfect example. People have been living with it. For a long time they have known the water comes, the water goes. In some years it has been exceptionally bad, but with the average flood they can cope."

Dharavi slum in Mumbai, home to a million people

Dharavi slum in Mumbai, home to a million people

Survival of the wealthiest

In the Indian capital Delhi conflicts over city development are particularly acute this year. On the one hand, city officials and politicians want to implement proper planning to make Delhi a world city before the Commonwealth Games this autumn, and on the other hand they have to deal with the slum dwellers. Benjamin Etzold says in these situations, the poor are likely to lose out. "Government or city administrations - it's always client politics. They are from specific social-economic elite, and they are often serving the interests of the elite, and the higher middle class as well. But often the policies do not work in favor of the urban poor."

As the urbanization trend continues, the risks of living in South Asia's megacities will also continue to grow - but mainly for the poor and vulnerable who do not have a lobby to look after their interests.

Author: Jaisu Bhullar

Editor: Grahame Lucas

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