Challenges of adaptation to the increasing flood risk in cities: lessons from the Pearl River Delta

Marcin Dabrowski, Dominic Stead, Feng Yu, Jinghuan He

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceedings/Edited volumeConference contributionScientific

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In some of the delta cities which are the most exposed to flooding caused by climate change - like Shenzhen and Guangzhou investigated in this paper - there is surprisingly little recognition of this problem and hardly any action is taken to address it. This paper draws on the insights from these two cases to address the following research questions: why certain delta cities ignore climate change risks? What are the obstacles to the emergence of spatial strategies considering climate change adaptation? How do the characteristics of the national governance systems within which cities operate constrain or facilitate their ability to devise integrated responses to climate change impacts?
The study draws on qualitative research methods. In addition to desk research and analysis of secondary data, the study draws primarily on semi-structured interviews with the representatives of the relevant municipal and provincial officials and range of spatial planning and water management experts from academia and the private sector.
The paper focuses on the role of interests, ideas and institutions in determining the capacity of cities to respond to the growing flood risk in the context of climate change. Such a response requires cooperation across levels of government, administrative boundaries and policy sectors (spatial planning and land use, water management, economic development policy). The study stressed, however, that in the cities under investigation these sectors function in silos with only formalistic coordination, which reflects the wider characteristics of the Chinese policy-making. Moreover, the research highlights the tensions between the priorities in urban development, land use and water management, which render the cities more vulnerable to flooding induced by climate change and help explain why climate change risks are largely ignored in planning and design of the new extensions of the cities. Finally, the findings indicate that while the Chinese national government recognises the risks associated with climate change and pushes the sub-national authorities to develop climate adaptation strategies, the city governments largely resist this pressure and continue to prioritise urban development at breakneck speed, ignoring climate change risks. These tensions and conflicts of interests are a fundamental obstacle to the emergence of urban climate adaptation strategies in the Pearl River Delta cities.
The study underscores importance of horizontal and vertical coordination of policies for the city’s willingness and ability to devise adaptation strategies. It enhances our understanding of institutional factors, ideas and conflicting interests and policy priorities that critically affect the capacity of cities to adapt to climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAdaptation Futures 2016, Rotterdam
Subtitle of host publication4th International Climate Change Adaptation Conference
Publication statusPublished - 2016
EventFourth International Climate Change Adaptation Conference: Adaptation Futures 2016 - WTC Rotterdam, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Duration: 10 May 201613 May 2016


ConferenceFourth International Climate Change Adaptation Conference
Internet address


  • flood risk
  • spatial planning
  • multi-level governance
  • policy integration

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