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01. A monkey prison

New Delhi

On Indian streets humans and animals seem to live in relative harmony but in the congested and densely-populated capital, New Delhi, one creature has become a fully fledged menace: the thousands of wild monkeys living in the city enter homes, steal food and, sometimes, they bite.

Once the monkeys were thought cute and, to devout Hindus, the living forms of the monkey god Hanuman. That changed in 2007, when Delhi’s deputy mayor died after falling from his balcony while trying to fend off a monkey attack.

AK Shukla, the city’s chief wildlife warden, says the solution is to shift captured monkeys to a wildlife park in the suburbs, known to Delhi residents as the “monkey prison”. Since 2007, city-employed monkey catchers have deposited 15,500 monkeys in the Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary.

There is, though, a shortage of monkey catchers, forcing the municipal authorities to increase the monkey bounty to 800 rupees (€11). Shulka says that the menace can be curbed by simply not feeding the animals. “Monkeys and humans have lived together in India for a long time. Feeding them disrupts their life cycle.”

“Monkey catcher” may not be the most desirable of jobs but it’s one that keeps the Indian capital ticking.

02. An earthquake bunker

San Francisco

When the massive Tohoku earthquake hit eastern Japan in March 2011 cities across the Pacific Rim were on high alert for a tsunami. In San Francisco Anne Kronenberg, head of the city’s emergency management department, rushed to “The Bunker”, her seismically secure command centre. “The first call I got was from the mayor asking what was going on,” she says.

On that occasion San Francisco was safe but it will fall to Kronenberg to coordinate the city’s response to a major disaster – and in the Bay Area that is usually taken to mean an earthquake. Seismologists say that in the next 30 years, there’s a high risk of a quake like the one that killed dozens in 1989. For Kronenberg the job is a natural fit. “I feel like I’ve trained for this role my entire life,” she says. Her background is in public health but in her early twenties she was Harvey Milk’s campaign manager. “When Harvey was killed I think it was the first time I realised bad things can happen; you just don’t know when you’re a kid,” she says. “That was probably the beginning of my interest in this field.”

If the Big One hits, Kronenberg and city managers from the police and fire chiefs to the mayor will make policy decisions from her HQ. The command room is filled with laptops and what seems an anachronism: analogue telephones. In fact, these phones, on a special network, were the only ones that worked after the 1989 quake. Her department’s plan envisages communication with the populace using 109 sirens across the city and sheltering the dispossessed in recreation centres and libraries.

The department runs a site, 72hours.org, that tells people what they need to be prepared (everything from bleach to sleeping bags). It has also partnered with design firm IDEO on a project to encourage residents to list and share resources that might be useful in a quake, such as an emergency generator. “We don’t want what happened in New Orleans,” says Kronenberg, referring to the exodus of residents. “We want people to stay in San Francisco.”

Other cities should take note of the way San Francisco prepares for disaster.

03. A sewerage start-up

Accra

Ghana’s swelling capital needs to smell better if it wants to live up to its middle-income status. Accra is latticed with open road-side drains, prone to flooding in storms and possessed in all weathers of an odour that sticks in the nostrils.

Where municipal authorities have failed, the private sector has stepped in. Zoomlion Ghana shifts 31,000 tonnes of solid waste each month through door-to-door collections and government maintenance contracts. It’s a Sisyphean task: “Our trucks clear 200 metres but when the driver looks back it’s as if he’s done nothing,” says Florence Larbi, managing director of Zoomlion. “As we collect, people dump.”

Where narrow streets are inaccessible to trucks a fleet of 1,200 tricycles takes solid waste out of hemmed-in settlements. But the elephant in the room is a sprawling dump for liquid waste, sardonically dubbed “Lavender Hill”, that seeps into the Atlantic. A treatment plant and bio-gas facility is planned, with a view to closing the site.

Zoomlion has to contend with lax sanitation byelaws and an exploding population. Yet an air of confidence persists: a million wheelie bins are to be distributed to homes in Accra and Zoomlion has launched in five other African countries. Here, the old adage rings true: where there’s muck, there’s brass.

It’s not the sexiest subject but, as city pioneers discovered in Victorian England, sorting out the sewers is the first step to a modern metropolis and better health.

04. An anti-pollution department

Hong Kong

Hong Kong offers clean and efficient public transport to miles of accessible hiking trails surrounding the city – but ask any Hongkonger about air or water quality in their hometown and you’re unlikely to get a positive response.

Hong Kong’s new Under Secretary of the Environmental Protection Department, Christine Loh, is tasked with conservation in a city better known for huge housing developments than nature reserves. “We have several big problems, all equally important,” she says. Loh’s policies to tackle Hong Kong’s high levels of air pollution have already created a buzz. Her office works with bus and taxi companies to reduce nitrogen oxides, spending €993m to help diesel vehicle owners replace their fleets and tightening marine standards to promote cleaner fuel, targeting a 90 per cent drop in emissions.

She will leave office in 2017 but Loh has set the ball rolling for improvements in Hong Kong’s environmental health by 2020. “Hong Kong citizens are ready for higher environmental performance; they expect it. Government can’t do this alone, we must collaborate with society. This is happening and I’m greatly encouraged by it.”

Nothing would do more to improve quality of life in Hong Kong than tackling air pollution. Loh has her work cut out.

05. A chaotic port

Athens

At the crack of dawn Commodore George Sarigiannis, in smart denims and jacket, signals at the long queues of cars streaming off the ferries docked in Piraeus harbour. “Go, go, go!” his arms motion.

As harbour master, Commodore Sarigiannis needs to be on top of everything at this ancient place, among the world’s three largest passenger ports. “The staff need to see my presence to know that I’m close to them,” he explains.

Sarigiannis sees tens of thousands of ferries, container and cruise ships safely in and out of his harbour every year while keeping 20 million passengers out of harm’s way. He tracks millions of tonnes in cargo, from cars to liquefied natural gas, a daily procedure he describes as “a puzzle that needs to be quickly and safely pieced together every morning, to be reshuffled at night without losing a piece”.

The need to perform within what seamen here describe as “organised chaos” is why the 54-year-old coastguard officer insists that only a Greek can manage this 2,500-year-old port.

Despite the pressure, Sarigiannis is unfazed. “I’m on duty 24 hours a day and have no stress. I never decide anything in the heat of the moment. I don’t leave anything to luck.” Though thousands travel through his port every day, he can’t remember when he last had a holiday. “I feel guilty when I go home,” he says. “This job is now my life.”

Sarigiannis is living proof that the public sector in Greece still has something to offer.

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