Yifan Powers is a second-year International Development student from Massachusetts. She is a senior editor at SAIS Perspectives.

If you were born and raised in the developed world, it is hard to imagine the megacities which dominate economic life in developing countries. A megacity is a city with 10 million or more people living in a contiguous area. This definition, however, does not nearly capture the teeming life, economic hustle, and daunting urban planning challenges megacities like Chennai, Karachi, and Beijing represent. Life in these cities can be a pathway to economic mobility, but it is also increasingly precarious as climate change exacerbates infrastructure and service delivery challenges.

SAIS’s Foreign Policy Institute and International Development Program, in partnership with the American Pakistan Foundation and the EastWest Institute, convened a panel of experts to discuss the myriad issues megacities face in the era of climate change.

 Tanvi Nagpal, Director of the International Development Program at SAIS, emphasized the importance of investing in public service delivery in confronting these issues. In Chennai, a city that faces persistent water shortages, the wealthy buy water privately from tankers which make over 10,000 daily trips to the city. Those unable to pay for this private water source must rely on public resources, which can mean going without water or making arduous trips to the closest public water source. As water grows scarcer in the region, this is an increasingly unsustainable service delivery model. It also intensifies inequality in a city where there is already a huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. Improving public service delivery, which has always been an important issue for cities, will be that much more important as megacities work to provide basic life necessities in more extreme climates.

Good governance, as Uzair Younus, Director of the Albright Stonebridge Group’s South Asia Practice explained, is also key to the future of megacities. Karachi, which went from 10 million residents in 1998 to 15 million in 2017, continues to operate without a trash management system or a mass transit system. In fact, the city continues to build car-oriented infrastructure when it is clear that it needs to focus on less polluting ways of moving people around. This is partly because the city of Karachi is governed by a party which prioritizes the interests of those living outside the city. If cities like Karachi are to remain livable in the next century, megacity governments must put their political power behind solving the day-to-day issues their residents face. 

In Beijing, a city which benefits from a concerted government effort towards confronting climate change, getting buy-in from the masses remains a persistent problem. For example, Jennifer Turner, Director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Affairs, described how Beijing actually hit Day 0 for water about a decade ago. But due to emergency water transfers, the city was able to circumvent its water crisis. The long-term solution of increasing water prices and promoting water conservation (like the steps taken by Cape Town to successfully circumvent its own Day 0) is much harder to achieve and requires changing the attitudes of the 27 million people who call Beijing home.

People will not stop moving to and living in megacities, but life in them will get harder. However, as Nagbal said during the panel, “megacities contribute to and are the source of many climate change issues, but they can also be part of the solution.” If policymakers, researchers, and the public earnestly embark on thinking through and acting on the needed policy solutions, megacities can be sustainable engines of economic opportunity for decades to come.

PHOTO CREDIT: "Beijing - Pollution" by Ethnocentrics is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.