Enable cities to better tackle climate extremes - Hindustan Times
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Enable cities to better tackle climate extremes

Jul 27, 2023 09:54 PM IST

With India's urban population expected to grow to over 800 million by 2050, inclusive infrastructure that supports natural resources is crucial.

Just when visuals of people in Delhi wading through chest-deep water had faded from the news, they’ve been replaced by images of residents trapped in landslides in northern and western India, and of marooned villages and towns in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Karnataka struggling to keep their heads above water as incessant showers pound the Konkan coast and hill states.

Global research has confirmed that unusual and extreme weather events are due to the impact of the climate crisis.(HT file photo) PREMIUM
Global research has confirmed that unusual and extreme weather events are due to the impact of the climate crisis.(HT file photo)

The onset of the southwest monsoon was extremely delayed this year – it arrived a week late in Kerala and was several weeks behind schedule by the time it progressed to Mumbai – but covered all of India about a fortnight earlier than usual. Global research has confirmed that such unusual and extreme weather events are due to the impact of the climate crisis.

But the climate crisis is just one side of the coin – one that warrants serious mitigation measures such as renewable energy adoption, carbon sequestration, and other high-level interventions. On the other side is the story of adaptation and resilience-building so that our communities are not pushed to the brink. In a fast-developing country such as India, urban infrastructure plays a large role in building resilient cities. The need of the hour is to review our business-as-usual development models and build and redesign our urban infrastructure to bolster our natural resources, instead of reclaiming them.

A recent study by WRI India on the impact of urbanisation on natural infrastructure in 10 cities used satellite images to show how urban built-up area increased at a rapid pace, encroaching water bodies and waterways, and impeding the natural drainage of rainwater, which obviously led to flooding during heavy rain. Our study found the blue cover, or water bodies, in cities decreased by 15% between 2000 and 2015.

This is bad news for the 377 million people – 31.1% of the population – who reside in our cities and towns according to the 2011 Census. India’s urban population is expected to grow to over 800 million by 2050, according to the United Nations. If such practices continue, it would cause a strain on urban infrastructure and resources such as water and housing, impacting the low-income segment of society harshly. While urbanisation is inevitable and accelerates economic development, it is crucial that infrastructure development does not come at the cost of the natural environment. Today, the free access to data, better learning and knowledge-sharing mechanisms, and greater willingness for cross-sectoral collaborations across governments, scientific communities and the private sector gives us an opportunity to realign our growth models.

How can we develop inclusive infrastructure that will house as well as make our estimated urban residents resilient to climate anomalies? How do we redesign already existing infrastructure smartly and sustainably so that natural infrastructure thrives and creates a strong defence against floods, excessive rainfall, heatwaves, and harsh winters?

The National Institute of Urban Affairs – which is the technical secretariat of Urban20 (U20) during India’s G20 presidency – mentions reducing urban flooding amongst U20 priorities. But a definitive focus on nature-based solutions such as conserving and improving our blue-green infrastructure is necessary. This requires some immediate strategies including planning and redesigning our storm water, sewerage and septage systems for the appropriate rain events; using a combination of grey solutions (retaining walls, channelising) and green solutions (overflow gardens, and better management of flood plains to better manage urban rivers, nullahs and lakes).

Additional strategies include developing clear strategies to reduce rainwater run-off and increase percolation, including very clear rules and awareness building on groundwater management and rainwater harvesting, and scientific approaches for tree planting those account for site and soil conditions, species selection and sapling maintenance programmes.

Today, geospatial data can help empower local administration to take a data-driven approach to planning, implementing and monitoring the impacts of these initiatives. In many cases, involving the community can ensure inclusivity and a sense of ownership, and thus sustenance. Our collective wisdom and technological prowess are sure to enable us in ensuring that our cities are better able to handle extreme climate events and that our economic growth is sustainable.

Madhav Pai is CEO, WRI India. The views expressed are personal

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