India is staring at an urban climate crisis

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Bangalore, the prosperous software hub of India, is poor in water and is getting thirstier by the day even as it destroys its water bodies. New Delhi is blanketed every winter in a thick, choking smog that you couldn’t cut with a knife. Freak rains and cyclonic storms regularly bring Chennai to its knees. The annual dunking Mumbai gets every monsoon has become a part of life for millions.

The signs are clear. Extreme weather events have started hurting Indian cities with frightening frequency. Added to this is the collapse of civic infrastructure under the pressure of unprecedented urbanization. There is a strong case for building climate resilience in cities, but low civic awareness, outmoded methods of urban planning in India and lack of capacity to respond to climate disasters present a rather grim scenario.

Due to climate change, hundreds of millions of people in urban areas across the world will experience rising sea levels, inland floods, more frequent and intense storms, and more frequent periods of extreme heat and cold in the coming years, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), an international research organisation. Climate resilience in urban areas is still not getting the attention it deserves beyond few scattered experiments even as global warming becomes a reality in the everyday life of citizens.

People living in cities in India doubled to an estimated 410 million in 2014 from 222 million in 1990, according to the New Climate Economy (NCE), a global initiative to examine how countries can achieve economic growth while dealing with the risks posed by climate change. In 2000–11, one-third of India’s new towns sprung up within a 50 km radius of existing cities containing more than one million people, NCE said. Urban areas have become substantial contributors to the national gross domestic product.

Cities at risk

The impact of climate change poses considerable risk to Indian cities. It is expected that impacts will include a general increase in temperatures by 2–4°C, an increase of 7–20% in annual precipitation with increased intensity, alongside increases in riverine flooding, cyclones, storm surges, and sea-level rise, according to a 2014 research paper by Anup Karanth and Diane Archer.

“As the impact of climate change-induced hazards in India is linked to existing structural vulnerability of a large part of the urban population, adaptation to climate change cannot be achieved without addressing the institutional weaknesses in managing urbanization and ensuring service delivery, alongside the necessary planning and regulatory frameworks,” the researchers said.

Surat example

Despite the warnings by scientists, precious little is being done to climate-proof Indian cities. Some cities, however, have been taking baby steps to mitigate climate risks. The city of Surat in Gujarat is an example of this. The city framed a resilience strategy in 2011, which was followed by establishing the Surat Climate Change Trust (SCCT) in 2012.

The trust has since been proactive recommending a series of steps to build resilience. “Since the trust does not have statutory authority, we are only able to make recommendations,” Kamlesh Yagnik, Chief Resilience Officer, Surat, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Implementing the suggestions rest with municipal and other authorities, and still poses a challenge.”

The situation in other cities is bleaker. The only large-scale study to assess climate vulnerability in 20 Indian cities was conducted in 2013. This is despite that fact that the number of cities with a population of more than one million will reach 75 by 2021 from 53 in 2011.

“Indian cities are facing additional risk due to climate induced extreme events such as floods, droughts, heat and cold waves,” said a study titled Urban vulnerability and risk – a key factor for building climate resilient urban development in Indian cities, which was conducted by Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe), a New Delhi-based organisation.

Agility to respond

An increasing concentration of population coupled with extreme events results in high damages to assets, interruptions in business continuity, opportunity losses, loss of lives, and displacement of populations, which is further worsened by economic and social vulnerability, the study said. Similar climate events can produce very different levels of socio-economic impacts, depending not only on the location and timing of the occurrence, but also the resources and agility of the societies to respond to climate impacts, it noted.

The city level studies by IRADe revealed that high cyclonic wind velocities could cause severe damage to residential and industrial structures in seven coastal cities. Five cities including Surat, Greater Mumbai and Thiruvananthapuram are prone to cyclonic winds, it found. Cities built on hill slopes are exposed to landslides. Flooding and water scarcity is a problem faced by most cities. There have been unprecedented floods of high intensity and flash floods in many cities in the past 10 years, especially in coastal cities such as Mumbai, Surat, Kolkata, Visakhapatnam, Kochi and Puri, the study pointed out.

“The challenge of climate change can only be met if cities are healthy and sustainable under normal circumstances,” the report said. “Their existing infrastructure should be adequate. An efficient and responsive governance should be in place.”

Slums and peri-urban areas

The impacts are compounded in India because a significant proportion of city dwellers live in slums. Slum dwellers tend to be the most vulnerable to climate change effects because they live along riverbanks, on slopes prone to landslides, near polluted grounds, on desertified land, in unstable structures, and along coastal waterfronts, according to WRI.

“We also need to take into consideration the rapid development in peri-urban areas and how people there are impacted by climate change,” Lubaina Rangwala, Managing Associate, Climate Resilience, WRI, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. Rangwala led an action research project in coastal Arnala village in Vasai-Virar, a suburb of Mumbai, and found that livelihoods that were dependent on fishing and farming were significantly impacted due to climate and urbanization factors.

“While framing policies to build climate resilience, we need to take into account the needs and aspirations of local communities,” Rangwala said. “We cannot hope to frame and implement policy interventions without active community participation.”

(This article was first published at India Climate Dialogue)

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