In India, urban planners anticipate climate change

India’s cities are expanding as the country's population continues to grow and urbanize. With that comes the challenge of building infrastructure for the future, taking into account the threats posed by climate change.

Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters
A man carries a child through a waterlogged road after heavy rainfall in Mumbai, India, September 23, 2020. India's National Institute of Urban Affairs is helping the government's housing and urban affairs ministry develop environmentally conscious urban planning.

India’s southern city of Hyderabad is known as a high-tech hub – but its infrastructure is looking increasingly dated in an era increasingly affected by climate change.

The city – home to offices of Microsoft and Google – this month saw its heaviest rainfall in a century, which left 70 dead and $77 million in damage to roads and drains, officials said.

In many cities in India, which find themselves increasingly caught between worsening droughts and deluges, urban planners have rarely considered growing climate risks when designing projects.

That lack of preparation – a global problem – is expected to be hugely costly, with about $90 trillion likely to be spent worldwide building and updating infrastructure by 2030, according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

But India – hit by worsening disaster-related losses – hopes to begin correcting that with a project launched last month to train cities to become climate smart.

“Cities are experiencing huge variability in climate. ... One year there is flood, another year water scarcity,” said Umamaheshwaran Rajasekar, who heads the Climate Center for Cities at India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA).

The institute is helping India’s housing and urban affairs ministry to implement the project, with Mr. Rajasekar at the helm.

“It is not about looking at the past but looking at the future ... how we can enable future development through informed action,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The effort is part of an ambitious broader plan to modernize cities with everything from high-speed internet to better transport systems. Under it, 139 cities will be trained to integrate climate risk in the planning stage of projects.

The “Climate Smart Cities Assessment Framework” will tackle the “increasing frequency of cyclones, floods, heatwaves, water scarcity, and drought-like conditions”, according to the government.

Cities will incorporate climate considerations in their management of water, waste and mobility, and in projects designed to make cities walkable and air breathable.

Virtual trainings have already begun with city planners and municipal authorities, officials said.

Several Indian cities have over the past few years worked on achieving ambitious United Nations-led global goals to make cities sustainable and protect the planet but on a “case by case basis”, said Mr. Rajasekar.

“These actions were happening in parts, but we want to make climate part of their ongoing activity,” Mr. Rajasekar said. ”Cities should be informed of future climatic and demographic changes.”

Cost of a changing climate

Threats to India’s cities are growing amid worsening climate risks.

Last year the country experienced a longer-than-usual summer, the biggest monsoon rains in 25 years, a record number of cyclones and unusual cold waves.

In August this year, a new bridge in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh – still awaiting its official inauguration – was washed away as the river flowing under it swelled after heavy rains, local media reported.

Heavy rainfall has hit operations and shut down the largest and busiest airport in coastal Kerala state’s Kochi for several days in 2018 and 2019.

This month, machinery deployed at a planned new airport site in suburban Mumbai was submerged in floodwater amid heavy rainfall and water pouring in from a river diverted to make way for the airport, officials said.

Delhi and its satellite town Gurugram also were waterlogged once again this year as heavy rainfall lashed the capital.

India has ranked among the top 10 countries globally in disaster deaths with a toll of 98,000 lives lost between 1996 and 2015, according to the U.N. disaster risk agency.

Financial losses from climate-related disasters also totaled about $80 billion for that period, it said.

Damodara Sivananda Pai, head of climate research and services at the India Meteorological Department, said the increasing rainfall over the last decade was in part a product of rising heat linked to climate change.

But human changes to land also are playing a role in worsening flooding, he said.

“Earlier, the rain would be absorbed in the soil. Now our drains are choked. Because of urbanization, the impact [of the rainfall] is more.”

‘Do things differently’

India’s population in the 70 years since it won independence from colonial rule has surged from about 320 million to 1.3 billion, and the percentage of people living in urban areas has jumped as well, the country’s census data and studies show.

By 2030, India is expected to be home to seven megacities with a population of more than 10 million, according to government projections.

While the government supports urban growth, which can create opportunities for people, “the problem is, how do we want to grow?” asked Hyderabad-based urban planner and architect Srinivas Murthy.

Cities in India have expanded into adjoining agricultural land, buildings have been constructed on filled-in lakes, and roads are being built on land reclaimed from the sea to accommodate growing populations, expanding industries, and more traffic.

Some of those changes, however, are leaving cities more vulnerable to growing climate threats, from sea-level rise to growing water shortages, environmentalists say.

“We are in a rush to catch up with the West when we should have learned from them,” said activist Sumaira Abdulali who has for years campaigned against destruction of beaches and India’s Western Ghats.

“COVID-19 has brought [the impacts of] interference with nature into our consciousness, yet we are not planning in terms of protecting the environment,” she said.

Still, the project to help cities become more climate-smart has stoked hopes for change.

Bedoshruti Sadhukhan, senior program coordinator at ICLEI South Asia – part of the Local Governments for Sustainability network – said infrastructure now being planned will have to factor in rising populations, growing demand for roads and water, and the impact of climate change over the next 50 to 100 years.

Right now, “that thinking which we want cities to take up is not happening strongly ... but this [new project] is a chance to do things differently and do them well,” she said.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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