Indian cities respond to climate change with resilience strategies

Summits notwithstanding, there are those who still view climate change as something faraway and futuristic. Climate change, however, is not just about penguins and glaciers. It triggers, often worsens, phenomena such as increasing temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, rising sea levels, frequent droughts, floods and storm surges. All these threaten lives and livelihoods. Responding to climate change means dealing with the challenges of today and thereby minimising the risk for the future, points our G.K. Bhat, chairman of TARU, a research consultancy company working on disaster management and climate change.
Urban India offers a telling example of the shape of things to come. The stunning debut of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi’s recent Assembly elections is a pointer to the country’s urban awakening. Though the uncertain poll verdict has fuelled much speculation about Delhi’s fate in the immediate future, one thing is clear. India’s city dwellers, now more than 30 per cent of the country’s population, are becoming more demanding. The state of urban infrastructure and basic services are under scrutiny, and not just in Delhi.
Climate change is hugely relevant to this urban discourse. In selected cities in the country, it is emerging as an important factor in the resilience strategies being adopted to cope with various threats.

Why is this so?

Across India, cities are facing challenges of scarcity of resources, inadequate infrastructure and poor services. Example: both urban population growth (31 per cent over 2001 — 2011) as well as fast-changing lifestyles have hugely pushed up demand for water. Some experts estimate that the decadal gross water demand growth could be more than 50 per cent. A significant proportion of urban infrastructure is also old and decrepit. Climate change puts additional stress on this already creaking urban infrastructure and services. This affects the public and is a fast-emerging political and economic issue.
Believe it or not, those worried about climate change include diamond traders in Surat, one of India’s most prosperous cities. The reason: experts point out that Surat suffers from at least two floods per decade due to emergency discharge of the Ukai Reservoir. The 2006 floods inundated 75 per cent of the city, resulting in relocation of some of the poorest and most vulnerable populations in low lying settlements. Climate change scenarios for Surat indicate rainfall variability, leading to more emergency dam releases and flooding. This has implications for the city’s business community.
A national conference on Emerging Mechanisms and Responses of Cities to Climate Change, recently held at Delhi, turned the spotlight on many such issues related to urban climate change risk. The conference, attended by city administrators, planners, engineers, social scientists, the business community and ordinary citizens, drew attention to the various approaches being tried in developing resilience as part of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) initiative supported by Rockefeller Foundation and implemented by a host of partners such as TARU, Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADE) and others.
ACCCRN, a nine-year initiative (2008-2017), has worked in ten cities in four Asian countries (India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam) on developing and demonstrating effective processes and practices for addressing urban climate vulnerabilities.
Three second-tier cities in India — Gorakhpur, Indore and Surat, and three cities in Vietnam — Can Tho, Da Nang and Quy Nhon joined ACCCRN in the initial stages. In July 2010, Bandar Lampung and Semarang in Indonesia began to participate in the urban climate change resilience program. In October 2010, two more cities from Thailand, Chiang Rai and Hat Yai joined the other eight cities.
Urbanisation, Poverty, Climate Change, a report released at the Delhi conference, points out that the “three main direct impacts of climate change on urban India would be disruption of life from floods, water scarcity amd morbidity and mortality due to hot and cold waves.” The report goes on to say that “the coastal cities are also likely to face additional stress due to a rise in sea level and possible increase in frequency of cyclonic storms. These direct impacts can cause disruptions in urban economy for days and weeks and months at a time.”
The ACCCRN initiative has catalysed interesting developments. Based on the assessments under the ACCCRN initiative and interactions with key agencies in the city, the Surat Climate Change Trust, for example, has come up with a timely warning for flood hazard in the city. This intervention called End-to-End Early Warning System for Ukai and local floods has since been approved and implementation has started. The initiative has also led to the development of an Urban Health and Climate Resilience Centre at Surat. Surat, which features in Rockefeller’s first group of “resilient” cities now has funds for a chief resilience officer to coordinate and oversee the resilience-related activities.
Gorakhpur in eastern Uttar Pradesh is another city experimenting with resilience strategies in response to climate change. Poor planning of urban drainage systems and improper disposal of plastic and waste by local citizens in Gorakhpur have long fuelled waterlogging problems during the rainy season, eroding quality of life in vulnerable neighbourhoods. In specific cases, city wards have remained waterlogged for months after the rainy season has ended, taking a toll on the health of Gorakhpur residents. These problems are exacerbated by climate change. As part of the ACCCRN initiative, major problems faced by residents of Gorakhpur due to climate change impacts have been put under 7 groups, each representing a sector i.e. basic services, housing, industry, health, energy/electricity, transport, ecosystem. Out of these seven inter-linked sectors, four have been identified for pilot interventions. As part of the process of city resilience building, Gorakhpur is developing, testing and institutionalising ward-level micro resilience planning and hopes that the model will be replicated.
Indore, a populous city in Madhya Pradesh and an important trade and commercial hub, attracts a huge flow of migrants. The local water resources are no longer able to support the growing demands of Indore — the water supply is intermittent, and the city faces acute water shortages during summers. Water quality is also a major issue for the city as studies indicate that 70 per cent of the tube wells in Indore are contaminated. The ACCCRN initiative is helping Indore craft water system resilience to climate change through source diversification and strengthening a vector-borne disease surveillance and response mechanism.
Several other Indian cities are also developing “resilience strategies”. ACCCRN partner, IRADE, has come up with vulnerability profiles of 20 Indian cities and ideas about climate-resilient urban development.
Climate change may not yet be a big talking point among India’s politicians and administrators. But the situation is changing rapidly. Refreshingly, the Delhi conference saw two passionate presentations from Tikender Singh Panwar, deputy mayor of Shimla, and Satya Pandey, mayor of Gorakhpur.
“There are pockets of energy even within the most moribund offices. We track them and they will bring the change that is needed,” says Ashvin Dayal, Associate vice-president and managing director, Asia, Rockefeller Foundation




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