Dozens of cities in India likely to go 3 feet under? Here is why - Hindustan Times
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Dozens of cities in India likely to go 3 feet under? Here is why

Dec 07, 2023 11:27 AM IST

While the recent flooding and the damage were caused by a cyclone, it is not the sole factor contributing to the extensive devastation.

Cyclone Michaung led to heavy rainfall in Chennai and has brought forward the vulnerability of Indian cities to climate-related disasters. With Chennai experiencing over 40 cm of rainfall within a 48-hour period by December 4, 2023, the situation serves as a clear indication of the worsening climate crisis confronting urban India.

Emergency services personnel evacuate stranded residents from a flooded colony after heavy rainfall owing to Cyclone Michaung, at Mylapore in Chennai, on Wednesday. (PTI)
Emergency services personnel evacuate stranded residents from a flooded colony after heavy rainfall owing to Cyclone Michaung, at Mylapore in Chennai, on Wednesday. (PTI)

Cyclone Michaung resulted in the loss of more than a dozen lives and caused extensive damage in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Striking images depicted submerged residential structures, vehicles being carried away by water and currents on flooded roads. While the recent flooding and the destructions were caused by a cyclone, it is not the sole factor contributing to the extensive devastation.

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Coastal and hilly areas at flooding risk

The challenges faced by Chennai are a component of a larger story of climate vulnerability prevalent in Indian cities. Cities like Kolkata and Mumbai, for instance, confront substantial risks stemming from the rise in sea levels, tropical cyclones, and river flooding. These densely populated metropolitan areas are already experiencing the consequences of climate change, evident in the intensified rainfall and flooding, coupled with heightened risks of drought.

Chennai has a history of flooding, notably experiencing a significant flood in 2015 due to heavy rainfall from the northeast monsoon. This occurrence served as a warning, underscoring the repercussions of insufficient urban planning and inadequate institutional capacity.

The reasons behind such flooding are diverse. Heavy rainfall, insufficient drainage systems, and rivers' incapacity to handle increased discharge levels are key factors. Urbanisation significantly contributes, with encroachments on major water bodies and ecologically sensitive zones worsening the situation. In the case of Chennai, the flat terrain further complicated matters, impeding efficient water drainage.

Research by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, commissioned on behalf of the World Bank Group, raises concerns about the impact of climate change on India, particularly in coastal areas. Due to its proximity to the Equator, India is anticipated to experience higher sea-level rises compared to regions at higher latitudes. This heightened risk poses a significant threat to coastal cities, leading to saltwater intrusion that can adversely affect agriculture, degrade groundwater quality, and potentially contribute to an increase in waterborne diseases.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) echoed these concerns in its 2021 report, emphasising rising sea levels as the most perilous risk for India. The report warned that by the end of the century, approximately 12 coastal cities in India, including Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi, and Visakhapatnam, could be submerged by nearly three feet.

The real-world implications of these risks are already affecting more than seven million coastal farming and fishing families. The rising seas exacerbate coastal erosion, projecting a loss of around 1,500 square kilometres of land by 2050. This erosion not only threatens valuable agricultural areas but also jeopardizes the existence of entire coastal communities.

Cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, marked by dense populations and infrastructural significance, face an elevated risk of more frequent and severe floods. This poses the potential to displace millions, adversely impacting livelihoods and critical infrastructure. Cities in Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand have faced the consequences of monsoon-induced flooding and landslides, with Delhi also experiencing substantial flooding earlier this year.

In July, the Yamuna River reached an alarming height of 208.48 meters, resulting in flooding in low-lying areas near its banks in Delhi. This surpassed the previous record set in 1978. Experts attribute the flood to the encroachment of floodplains and the accumulation of silt caused by heavy rainfall in a short period. The flooding in July drew attention to the issues of illegal mining and construction activities along riverbanks in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh.

The shifting pattern of extreme weather events is evident, with regions prone to flooding becoming susceptible to drought, and vice versa, impacting over 40 per cent of Indian districts.

What could be done?

Coastal embankments and strict implementation of the Coastal Regulation Zone are essential to protect the rising sea levels.

Adopting the “sponge city” concept and watershed management can help in reducing flooding risks.

Impoved hydro-meteorological systems and installing efficient flood warning systems can help citizens and governments respond to such adverse conditions better.

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