Reflections on an urbanizing South Asia

Ming Zhang leads World Bank’s urban and water sector for South Asia. We asked him about the issues facing the countries he serves.


What countries do you serve, and what are the major issues they face in terms of the built environment?

The region I’m responsible for is South Asia, so eight countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and then two very small countries — one in the mountains, Bhutan, and then one small island, the Maldives.

This region has the lowest urbanization levels in the world, even a little bit lower than Africa. However, the urbanization rate is growing very fast, so it’s now very close to that of East Asia and Southeast Asia — China, Vietnam, these countries.

And also, if you look at per capita GDP, the economies of the region are growing very fast. You basically have a very low base in terms of economics and population migration, and it’s picking up very fast. Cities are the driving force of growth in the continent. The scale is really mind-boggling.

So as a result you have a system where both the hard and soft infrastructure are unprepared to deal with this kind of rapid urbanization. That’s the key challenge.

Compared to East Asia, the countries are much less prepared for this kind of urbanization. And compared to Africa, you have economic forces which are pushing the agenda much faster. In Africa, urban growth is to some extent ahead of economic growth. In South Asia it’s the other way.

What does your job involve on a day-to-day basis?

I work with countries and local governments to understand and address issues related to urbanization and urban governance. For most South Asian countries, we’re coming to understand that cities are important and that urbanization is one of the biggest challenges. Some of the countries are a little more advanced than the others, but overall they are all just now coming to this recognition.

But the challenge is so enormous, what do you actually do in terms of investment and urban management? The whole system is not geared towards that.

For example, almost none of the cities in the region have a continuous water supply. It is considered very good if you have 10 to 16 hours of water supply daily in a city. Most cities have water supply maybe two to three hours a day, and in many cities you have water supply only two, three days a week. That’s very common. You have lots of infrastructure issues.

The other thing is that soft infrastructure is not ready for massive urbanization. In most countries you don’t have empowered mayors. For example, in India you elect mayors, but they don’t have financial resources or much administrative power. You have a very strong bureaucracy that’s managing the city.

That model is quite outdated, and there’s debate on what you need to do to serve cities. Around the world, you see lots of innovations at the city level. Globally, urban leaders are probably the most innovative among all the public sector. But in South Asia, where many of the countries don’t have empowered city leadership, this kind of innovation and competition among cities is not really coming forward. Overall, I think this bureaucratic system makes the cities less able to adapt.

Around the world, you see lots of innovations at the city level. Globally, urban leaders are probably the most innovative among all the public sector

Can you talk a bit about what it means to have better-managed cities?

As an example, if you go to Colombo in Sri Lanka, just in the last two years you can see a lot of changes. The streets are cleaner, things are better managed. I think that’s because Sri Lanka is really active on a country level. They really put Colombo as a high priority. There’s been investment and good management, just ensuring that garbage is collected and streets are clean.

The other example is Ahmedabad, in Gujarat state. They have come up with a lot of good innovations in terms of how cities are managed. They have a system to acquire land for infrastructure development. As a result, they have a bus rapid transit system, waterfront development, and a low-income housing program.

One other city is Kabul, in Afghanistan. There are still huge challenges there, but in the last few years the mayor has really taken the initiative to try to address simple things — pave more streets, get some of the infrastructure done. Maybe ten years ago, when we had our first engagement there, everything at the city level had to be done by the national ministry, but now the Kabul leadership is taking over. It’s still low-capacity, and they need a lot of help, but you see things are changing. You see mayor doing a lot of things, and it’s quite popular politically, because the people see the changes.

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