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When water rises, everyone gets wet

A lesson from the Kashmir floods: Indian cities must become climate-resilient, not just stop at being smart, writes KumKum Dasgupta.

ht view Updated: Oct 09, 2014 16:14 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times

"I could not even save a thread. Now we will have to start from scratch," a Srinagar-based friend said over the phone. In the first week of September, floods tore through several districts of Jammu and Kashmir. In the past one year, four states - Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Meghalaya - have been pulverised by similar calamities.

The effect of these floods has been particularly harsh on urban areas. They exposed the haphazard development and showed how ill-equipped administrators are when it comes to tackling such catastrophic events. In a 2012 article in Greater Kashmir, urban planner Tawseef Yousuf wrote: "The city (Srinagar) has been growing at the hands of realtors and land mafias and thus there's no planning. Ultimately, this (growth) is obviously going to be more of problem than a solution. No one is paying heed to Master Plan (2001-2021)… we have commercial complexes in residential areas, educational institutes in commercial, residential areas in green belts and likewise." A Guwahati-based colleague echoed a similar sentiment: "These floods are man-made… at least 60% of the city's wetland, which could have controlled the floods by soaking in the extra rainwater, has been taken over by the construction mafia to build housing plots."

By 2031, India's urban population is projected to increase by more than 200 million to 600 million, or 40% of the national population. Indian cities have to build resilience so that they can withstand such natural shocks, which, as several studies have pointed out, are expected to increase, thanks to frequent and intense heavy precipitation over most regions. Climate change could also put additional stress on coastal cities. But building resilience, as Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, writes in a blog, is not a sprint or even a marathon. It's a relay race.

Worldwide, there are several cities that are gearing up to face the climate challenge. An analysis done by the Foundation's 100 Resilient Cities Challenge, which gives a 360-degree insight into cities that are ready to build resilience to the social, economic and physical challenges [of] an increasingly urbanised world, shows that flooding poses the biggest worry for cities. The next is earthquake.

In fact, instead of spending so much time and effort on the topic of bullet trains and smart cities for India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should have taken time out to visit Tokyo's Honjo Bousai-kan (Life Safety Learning Centre), a part of Tokyo's resilient city project, during his Japan trip. This centre is one of three disaster preparedness facilities in Japan. Each centre specialises in simulations of catastrophic scenarios and their tours teach visitors what to do, if, say, a high-rise fire or a tsunami crash through their neighbourhood. It even has an urban "flooding corner", where visitors can experience what it's like to try to open a house or car door when there is 20, 30, or 40 cm of water pushing against the other side of it. New York, which Modi also visited recently, too has understood the need for developing resilience and its department of city planning has undertaken several initiatives to build the city's resilience.

Of the 32 cities shortlisted for the final round in the Rockefeller challenge, the only Indian city is Surat, which has experienced 23 floods, including a significant one in 2013. The city has developed a climate change resilience strategy, an end-to-end early warning system and, in 2011, formed the Surat Climate Change Trust. Now, when the city dam approaches capacity, an early warning system is sounded and citizens learn via SMS starting 48 hours in advance of the release.

We can't predict the next disruption or catastrophe. But we can prepare for and respond to these challenges. Instead of developing smart cities, the government must retrofit the existing ones with resources to become resilient, as Surat has done.

First Published: Oct 09, 2014 00:58 IST