Battambang, Cambodia – 01/06/17. On May 8th 2017, the Urban Climate Resilience in Southeast Asia Partnership (UCRSEA) opened its third annual workshop in Battambang, Cambodia, with an address by H.E. Nguon Ratanak the Provincial Deputy Governor of Battambang and keynote speech by Prof. Jonathan Rigg of the Department of Geography and Director of the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, a well-known figure in Southeast Asian research communities.
Battambang, chosen as the site of the workshop and one of UCRSEA’s partner cities due to its potential for rapid urban and economic growth, has a municipal government with a unique interest in climate change and associated risks.
“Our ancestors told us we must think first, do later. So this [urban climate resilience] research aligns with our saying because we have to think a lot or else create impacts later,” said H.E. Nguon Ratanak through a translator. This foresight perhaps comes from necessity. “People in this region are familiar with climate [disasters],” he continued. Battambang City and the greater Battambang province have experienced both drought and severe flooding in recent years.
Due to Battambang’s susceptibility to climate disasters, which can also be exacerbated by the urban sprawl the city is experiencing, it is one of the few in the region with a master plan for urban development that includes an awareness for climate change’s impacts on building a “livable, healthy, [and] prosperous city.” H.E. Nguon Ratanak, however, noted that the plan is “not perfect” and welcomed the chance for the assembled researchers to help improve it.
In his keynote address, Dr. Jonathan Rigg also addressed the future of communities such as Battambang, which straddle the line between urban and rural. He analyzed how the urbanization process and the change in the environment impact residents’ livelihoods and reshape urban poverty and vulnerability.
Battambang’s growth points to a larger trend of economic development in Southeast Asia. The percent of the population living on less than 1.25 USD has shrunk rapidly from 40% in 1990 to 14% in 2010. Yet, Dr. Rigg argued that this statistic alone obscures more complex realities of change. While on paper, poverty may be on its way to “eradication”, according to the World Bank poverty threshold, participating more actively in a capitalist economy comes with its own set of vulnerabilities as people sell off farmland to participate in short-term labor contracts in cities and factories, and the booming population of such urban areas outstrips the capacity of the current infrastructure – as typically witnessed by the insufficiency of waste and water management infrastructures.
Based on the case studies of eight secondary cities in Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, UCRSEA’s work aims to illuminate the impacts of climate and environmental change on Southeast Asia’s changing landscape and growing economy. That goal can only be achieved with the collaboration of municipal governments, such as Battambang’s, that are tasked with governing some of the most rapidly changing areas in the region.
UCRSEA is a five-year partnership between the University of Toronto, the Thailand Environment Institute, and multiple other partners in the Greater Mekong Sub-region sponsored by IDRC and SSHRC. The Partnership is currently in its third year.