Are Indian cities prepared for a changing climate?

6 Jul 2015 - 15:00

By Sumetee Pahwa

Climate change is posed to intensify existing socio-economic vulnerabilities in India. According to the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, annual mean temperature in India is projected to increase by more than 3° Celcius before the end of this century. In addition, changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as floods and droughts are likely to impact human health, agricultural productivity and the sustainability of natural resources such as water, forests and biodiversity.

Agricultural productivity is a subject of scientific investigation nationally and across several Indian states. Reputed research institutions have undertaken historical trend analysis of yields for a variety of crops, including wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, potato and coconut. Recent national projects such as the National Innovations for Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA) were set up within the last 4 years to undertake strategic research and technology demonstration. This includes accelerating the development of ‘adverse climate-tolerant varieties’ or ‘climate-resilient crop varieties’. The aim of such research is to build the resilience of India’s agricultural sector to climate vulnerability, tied to which are the livelihoods of millions of farmers, and the food security of the nation. Lessons from national- and state-level scientific research on climate-resilient agriculture is then translated into reformed agricultural practice at farm-level via krishi vigyan kendras and non-government organisations. The contribution of agriculture to the nation’s GDP has decreased from 52% to less than 14% over the period 1950-51 to 2012-13, as a result of the growth in industrial and tertiary sectors. However, half of India’s population is still active in agriculture.

Since agriculture is predominantly monsoon-dependent in India, climate plays a significant role in agricultural production.  Simulation studies which factor in elevated temperature and increased concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, indicate that climate change is likely to reduce agricultural yields in most parts of the country. There is growing scientific knowledge on the vulnerability of sectors allied to agriculture, as well as the sensitivity of certain varieties of crops to climate change.

But what about the impacts of climate change on urban areas?

There is much less scientific evidence on how human settlements, especially urban areas, will be impacted by a changing climate. There is a complete lacuna of government-supported research projects and institutions in the country that methodically study how climate risks intersect with existing vulnerabilities in India’s burgeoning urban centers. This is of particular concern in semi-arid parts of the country, with low levels of investment in both agriculture and industry. There are a number of questions pertaining to the viability of city systems for water provisioning, storm water drainage, public transport and health care as increasing numbers of job-seekers flock to urban areas. For instance, does the risk exposure of migrants from rural areas to cities, in response to climate-induced agricultural distress, reduce as a result of seasonal or permanent migration? Which interventions will enhance the adaptive capacity of poor and vulnerable populations in the face of urban floods, heat waves and prolonged breakdown of urban services during and after climate-induced disasters?

There is growing international concern over the implications of climate change for urban areas, particularly in developing countries, where cities are growing rapidly and a high proportion of urban population are poor, or otherwise vulnerable (IPPC, 2014). A study by IIHS (Jain et al, 2014) shows that urban areas along the coasts or in the Indo-Gangetic plain are most exposed to climate-linked, hydro-meteorological hazards such as inland flooding, cyclones and storm surges. Recent disasters in Srinagar and Visakhapatnam attest to the fact that extreme weather events can very quickly endanger people, institutions and economic assets concentrated in our cities. However, once vulnerability of the urban population (captured though income and human development indicators) is integrated into the analysis, cities in semi-arid regions and in the poorer states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Maharashtra emerge as most risk-prone.

Income disparities, differentiated access to livelihood opportunities and affordable housing, poor living conditions and an unequal distribution of environmental risks renders the urban poor and marginalized, more susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Peri-urban areas of numerous Indian cities in particular, display an explosive combination of intensifying economic and technological transitions alongside unabated environmental degradation. Informal settlements or slums in environmentally marginal lands, and next to storm water drains, low-lying areas or garbage dumpsites are the worst affected by flooding or extreme rainfall events. Limited access to safe drinking water or sanitation networks generates an ongoing health risk for the poor, in areas where public healthcare services may be limited or absent. The geographical spread of such high risk belts in the periphery of Indian cities is inadequately studied, despite the fact that at regional scales of biophysical phenomenon, such as ground water recharge or surface water pollution, city networks of water supply and drainage may eventually get choked from the outside in.

What could adaptation in Indian cities look like?

In India, development planning takes place at national and sub-national levels. While attempts have been made to mainstream climate vulnerability into the national development agenda since 2008, the role of local bodies and communities in climate change adaptation remains confined to implementation. The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience (ACCCRN) experience shows that there is a strong need to institutionalize resilience-building actions at the city scale, with numerous actors, towards climate adaptation. This Rockefeller Initiative (2008-2015) addressed urban vulnerabilities across two sets of cities – core cities Surat, Indore and Gorakhpur; and replications in Mysore, Guwahati, Shimla and Bhubaneshwar. Common processes of shared learning dialogues for stakeholder engagement, vulnerability assessments, sectoral studies and city resilience planning were applied. These translated into a myriad of interventions such as urban lake restoration, passive building design, establishment of urban health centres, flood-resilient construction, sustainable waste management and integrated farming. At the end of this programme however, cities are left to their own enterprise to institutionalise an urban climate-resilience agenda into a municipal planning framework. 

In the case of Bangalore…

Bangalore in Southern India, is a city where in recent decades, the lake and wetland systems have eroded dramatically due to an ecologically insensitive form of urban development that thrives on fragmented institutional management. In July 2002, the Lake Development Authority (LDA) - an autonomous body set up by the Government of Karnataka - was established to take charge of previously designed lake reinvigoration plans. As a result, the local government embarked on planned initiatives for the development of 17 lakes, and a plan for the maintenance of 11 lakes. However, the absence of well-defined guidelines on the demarcation of wetlands has created major barriers to wetland restoration and management.

More recently, and in the absence of international funding for climate resilience, local and international companies, directly affected by climate hazards, have initiated pilot projects in Bangalore. Examples include the involvement of engineering firms in the restoration of water bodies, around which they are located and private efforts to green the city. However, in the absence of a committed, leading agency and representation from marginalized communities, much of this work completely ignores equity concerns and is currently configured to attend to narrowly defined environmental problems, which the involved actors are able to rally support around. Expert advice from scientists and practitioners is sought on an ad-hoc basis, which rarely results in continuity, ownership or social justice.

Restoration of urban lakes is one initiative which is recognized as critical for a city like Bangalore, for groundwater recharge, as well as to re-invigorate other ecosystem provisioning services. In light of a warming trend for the country, and increased rainfall for the Bangalore region, a dysfunctional lake system would translate into water scarcity in summer months and urban floods during extreme rainfall events. Additional initiatives are active in Bangalore that do not necessarily respond to climate risks but are aimed at conserving natural resources. For example, there is mandatory use of rainwater harvesting in residential and commercial buildings in certain areas, establishment of decentralized wastewater treatments plants and active plantation drives, and development of carbon sinks and potential forests. 

When adaptation is not enough

As a response to climate change concerns by reducing carbon emissions, dedicated cycle lanes and traffic-free pedestrian-only zones are planned for Bangalore. Promotion of replacement of 2-stroke auto rickshaws with 4-stroke ones and a high speed rail connecting Bangalore’s KempeGowda International Airport to the city centre are also proposed.

Across the city, and mostly driven through financial funds generated by the state of Karnataka, several energy conservation and energy efficiency projects are underway, or planned. Some such projects include:

  • Mandatory use of solar water heaters, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), ISI-marked motor pump sets and integration of energy efficiency and renewable energy in new buildings;
  • special tariffs for power purchase from renewable energy sources;
  • Belaku (Light) scheme to replace up to four incandescent bulbs with CFLs at a subsidized rate per household;
  • Solar Karnataka Program for 25,000 solar rooftops of 5-10 kW with net metering and;
  • extensive use of solar streetlights in Bangalore area.

So, are Indian cities prepared for a changing climate?

In the absence of a strong mandate to plan for climate resilience, dedicated financial resources, mechanisms for transferring strategic knowledge on climate resilient practices across scales and states, and rigorous and evidence-based research on the vulnerability of city systems to climate change impacts, Indian cities are addressing the challenges of environmental degradation and increased resource demands through reactive, ad-hoc, private or government-led, pilot projects, with little scope of scaling up or out towards other community-based adaptation work


Photo credits: Manish Gautam, Chandni Singh, Massimo Ingegno, Shashikala