Devendra Singh Tak, a New Delhi-based communication specialist with Save the Children, was in Vishakhapatnam when Cyclone Hudhud pounded the coastal city on Sunday. Throughout the day, Tak sent several text messages, updating me about the ground situation in city. At 7.40pm on Sunday, hours after the worst was over, he sent this message: "Just drove around a bit... my hotel inverter has packed up and kitchen destroyed. Huge damage ... I have been in three cyclones and this was not less than any other. Vishakhapatnam is like a war zone". A few minutes later, Tak added: "I fear casualties since not enough people were evacuated; plus crops destroyed. Trees bus stops electric poles and many constructions destroyed".
The real quantum of loss in the Hudhud-hit states of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa will be known only in the coming days. However, expecting the worst, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu has already asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi to declare Hudhud as a national calamity and requested an immediate relief of Rs. 2,000 crore.
If there is one big lesson that Hudhud has for India, it is this: coastal cities need to plan and implement climate risk management strategies as an integral part of their development plans to overcome the risks posed by climate change, natural disasters and other extreme events. And this has to be done on a war-footing.
And, here’s the stats why protecting these regions is vital: India’s coastal area is spread over 8% of the geographical area in 84 districts falling within 13 states and Union Territories, and accommodating an estimated population of about 320 million people (which roughly accounts to about 25% of the country’s population). In the last 270 years, 21 of the 23 major cyclones with casualty figures of about 10,000 lives or more worldwide occurred mostly in India and Bangladesh, over the area surrounding the Indian subcontinent.
Despite the real threat of climate change, Indian cities are yet to rise up to the challenge of making their cities climate-resilient.
A climate resilient city is one that has the ability to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity for self organisation and the capacity to adapt to stress and change. To be resilient, a city needs to work on its urban governance, infrastructure, finance, design and environmental and resource management.
To date, only seven Indian cities have climate resilience plans: Surat, Indore, Gorakhpur, Mysore, Bhubaneswar, Shimla and Guwahati. And other than Surat, no other city has implemented their climate change plan.
"The main problem is that there are no state-level mandates to tackle climate change and tackling it does not even fall within the responsibilities of urban local bodies (ULBs) as framed by the 74th Constitutional Amendment," TERI’s Divya Sharma told me last week. "We need to mainstream climate resilience and weave it into urban planning. Unfortunately, many officials are not even aware about the economic and social disruption that climate-induced calamities can have on a city and its residents."
Sharma, who has worked with several state governments, added that responses of states differ but more often than not, departments keep passing the files from one to another to avoid taking any decision on the issue. "Most states feel that tackling climate change is the Centre’s responsibility. Only Goa and Gujarat are proactive when it comes to planning for climate challenges. Interestingly, Vishakhapatnam has a cyclone preparedness plan but no disaster management plan."
It is time that cities realise that they are putting their very existence at risk by not focussing on building plans on how to ensure that they stay afloat in face to climate catastrophes.
Equally important, chief ministers should realise that presenting a demand note to the Centre after every calamity is not a long-term solution to the problem; instead, they must shoulder the responsibility to make their states climate-resilient and that they do not have the luxury of time any more.