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Coastal populations,

urban sprawl and

climate change
10 metres in altitude) only accounts for
The mapping of low-lying about two per cent of the world’s land area,
areas, many of which are also susceptible to
subsidence, and already have large
but contains 10 per cent of the total
coastal urban centres population, and 13 per cent of the urban
populations at risk from storm surges.

population. Figure 1: Ten countries with largest

around the world, clearly populations in the Low Elevation Coastal Zone
As illustrated in Table 1, about two-thirds of
highlights how many of the population in this zone is in Asia. But
even in Africa, with only one per cent of its
our urban cities will be

,000 people in zone

land in the zone, and a comparatively high 100
share of the population engaged in
increasingly threatened agriculture, still 12 per cent of the urban
population live in the zone.
by climate change and 40
While the small island states have by far the
points to an urgent need 0



largest share of land in the zone, their
I ndi

C hi

J ap
g lad

population percentages are not exceptional.
for mitigation and

T ha
V ie
I ndo
B an

P hil
This is in part because some of the most
populous small island states have
adaptation policies. comparatively little settlement in the low Figure 2 shows countries with the highest
By Gordon McGranahan, Deborah Balk elevation areas, but is also because small population shares in the zone (excluding
and Bridget Anderson island states do not have large rivers, those with total populations of less than
creating flat and fertile deltas. 100,000 or land areas less than 100 square
Coastal settlement is both environmentally kilometres). Three of these: Vietnam,
damaging and environmentally vulnerable. Regional averages hide considerable Bangladesh and Egypt, are also among the
Climate change, which will bring sea level national variation, and the 10 countries countries with the largest overall
rise and greater storm intensity, amplifies the with the most people living in the zone populations in the zone.
risks of coastal settlement. Yet coastal zones (Figure 1) together account for about 463
are densely settled and growing rapidly. million people, or about 73 per cent of the Figure 2: Ten countries with highest population
people who live in the zone globally. These shares in the Low Elevation Coastal Zone
The low elevation coastal zone (LECZ – countries are generally populous, and
defined as contiguous coastal land less than 100
contain large and densely populated delta
population share in zone, %

Table 1: Population and Land Area in Low Elevation Coastal Zone by Region – 2000
Shares of region’s population and land in LECZ 50
Region Total Urban Total Urban 30
population population land land 20
(%) (%) (%) (%) 10



b ia

Africa 7 12 1


B el
G am
G uy
g lad

Asia 13 18 3
V ie

D j ib
B ah

S ur

B an

T he
N et

Europe 7 8 2 7
Latin America 6 7 2 7
All but two of the countries are of low or
Australia and New Zealand 13 13 2 13
lower-middle income, a concern from a
North America 8 8 3 6
vulnerability perspective. This is
Small Island States 13 13 16 13
somewhat surprising, given that urban
World 10 13 2 8 settlements are generally more coastal

10 The edge Autumn 2007

than rural, and it is more wealthy countries
that are more urban.
Climbing coastal city populations
In the world as a whole, but most notably in ● The LECZ accounts for two per cent ● Of the 10 largest cities in the world,
Asia, not only are urban populations more of the world’s land area but seven extend into the coastal zone –
likely to be in the LECZ than rural contains 13 per cent of the urban amounting to 55 million people.
populations, but larger urban settlements population. ● 183 countries have people living in
are more likely to overlap with the LECZ ● Worldwide, urban populations are the LECZ – 130 of those have their
than smaller urban settlements. While only more likely to be in the LECZ than most populous urban area extending
13 per cent of urban settlements with rural populations. And it is the into the zone.
populations under 100,000 overlap with the larger urban settlements (those ● In China national population growth
LECZ, this rises to 65 per cent among cities with populations over 100,000) that between 1990 and 2000 was
of five million or more. Of the 10 largest are the most likely to extend into approximately one per cent, while
cities identified in 2005 by the United the coastal zone growth of urban populations in the
Nations, seven (Tokyo, New York, Mumbai LECZ was 3.4 per cent.
(Bombay), Shanghai, Kolkata (Calcutta),
Jakarta and Buenos Aires) extend into the
zone. Indeed, about 55 million people in
these cities and their contiguous urban areas clearly a driver, movements towards the
live in the zone. Perhaps even more striking, coastal zone are evident, with a total Information contained in this article is
of the 183 countries with people living in population growth rate of 1.2 per cent, summarised from Gordon McGranahan,
the LECZ, 130 have their most populous growth in the zone of 2.1 per cent and Deborah Balk and Bridget Anderson
urban area extending into the zone. growth in the urban population in the zone (2007), ‘The rising tide: assessing the
of 2.8 per cent. risks of climate change and human
Continued urbanisation is in danger of settlements in low elevation coastal
drawing still greater populations and Looking to the future, responses to the zones’, Environment and Urbanization,
population shares into the low elevation growing risks in coastal settlements Vol 19, No 1, pages 17-37.
coastal zone. In China, where export-driven brought on by climate change will need to
economic growth has been associated with include each of the three Ms – mitigation, Dr Gordon McGranahan is at the
very rapid coastal migration, national migration and modification – all of which International Institute for Environment
population growth between 1990 and 2000 have a long lead-time. Low income groups, and Development, London. Deborah
was approximately one per cent, while who often settle the flood plains, are most Balk is at Baruch College, City
growth in the low elevation coastal zone at risk. These same groups are most at risk University of New York. Bridget
was 1.9 per cent, and of urban populations from hastily constructed government Anderson is at the New York City
in the zone was 3.4 per cent. Even in policies. All this points to the need for Department of Sanitation
Bangladesh, where urbanisation is not so timely action – starting now.

BANGLADESH: Bay of Bengal Coastal Region
This study integrates recently-developed spatial databases of
finely resolved global population distribution, urban extents,
and elevation data to produce country-level estimates of urban
land area and population in LECZ (low elevation coastal zones).
By overlaying geographic data layers, the population and land
Urban Extents, by Population Size, 2000 area in each country, in its LECZ are calculated and summarised
5K-100K 100K-500K 500K-1Mil 1Mil-5Mil 5Mil+ by country, region, and economic grouping. Shuttle Radar
Low Elevation Coastal Zone (LECZ) Administrative Boundaries (Thana) Topography Mission (SRTM) data was used to delineate a LECZ
NOTE: LECZ layer has been made semi-transparent to including land area contiguous with the coast up to 10 metres in
show the underlying layers. Thus the blue colour is not uniform.
elevation. Urban extents were taken from Columbia University’s
Center for International Earth Science Information Network’s
Global Rural Urban Mapping Project (GRUMP). These urban
extents were primarily delineated using NOAA’s night-time
lights satellite data (city lights 1994-95), and represent urban
agglomerations including surrounding suburban areas.
Population and land area were also taken from GRUMP. All data
are expressed at 1km resolution. Figure 3 illustrates, for the Bay
of Bengal region of Bangladesh, the data layers with which the
calculations were made.
BANGLADESH: Bay of Bengal Coastal Region

For access to the data and related publications, see:


Urban Extents, by Population Size, 2000

5K-100K 100K-500K 500K-1Mil 1Mil-5Mil 5Mil+

Low Elevation Coastal Zone (LECZ) Administrative Boundaries (Thana)

NOTE: LECZ layer has been made semi-transparent to Figure 3: Map of Bangladesh identifying low elevation coastal zone
show the underlying layers. Thus the blue colour is not uniform.
and urban extents

The edge Autumn 2007 11