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Indian cities face 'huge' risks without climate planning

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 5 Mar 2014 16:00 GMT
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People assess the damage to their shop after Cyclone Phailin hit Gopalpur in Ganjam district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha on October 13, 2013. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Continuing failure to plan ahead for more extreme weather in India’s cities could lead to huge economic and health costs, and hit India’s most vulnerable particularly hard, experts say.

What is needed is a comprehensive strategy to develop resilience in cities, including a “paradigm shift” in how modern cities are planned and managed, argue the authors of a policy brief  by The Energy and Resources Institute, (TERI), a leading Indian research organisation and think tank.

According to the brief, climate resilience is a vital aspect of urban planning that has largely been ignored to date. The continued effects of inaction could be disastrous, and “could lead to huge economic losses (and) negative health impacts associated high social cost burdens, particularly among vulnerable groups such as the poor, disabled, elderly, and children,” it warns.

Divya Sharma, a researcher at TERI who worked on the brief, said that India must take on a proactive approach to climate change, rather than a reactive one.

“We cannot afford to rebuild the entire system that is being destroyed by these extreme (weather) events. We need to prepare and know what lies ahead in terms of climate. We need to understand and develop early warning systems, so that we can save some of the infrastructure. We need to adapt our infrastructure for these changes,” she said.

Two major cyclones and flooding last year in India are costing “billions” in recovery funds, spending that could have been greatly minimized with proactive, preparatory resilience measures, she said.

Some Indian cities have shown the capacity to be proactive on climate issues. Last year the city of Ahmedabad announced a “pioneering” plan to prepare its residents for severe heat, using an early warning system and special water management plan.

On India’s east coast, similarly, deaths from powerful Cyclone Phailin last year were limited to a handful thanks to planning measures such as pre-positioning of emergency food, drinking water, boats and helicopters, cancellation of holidays for civil servants and orderly – and enforced – evacuation.

BUREAUCRATIC BARRIERS

But in other places, bureaucracy and the nature of the Indian political system remains a big obstacle in the path of establishing effective climate resilience policies, said Sharma of TERI, which is run by Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“Building development is a state subject, which means that without the mandate of the state government, the city cannot take up any kind of development,” she said.

The report calls on state governments to engage more effectively on the issue and stump up adequate money to deal with the threats.

Still, all of India’s states are at least now working on mandated climate action plans, Sharma said.

“We are at that transition phase where the state climate change plans have been prepared and the state government is looking at funding, budgetary allocation, the institutional framework, and overall roadmap as to how the state action plan on climate change should be implemented,” she said.

TERI’s brief has a range of suggestions for cities hoping to improve their climate resilience, including making a case for investing in climate action, spreading knowledge about climate resilience among many organisations, integrating resilience policy into laws and regulations related to urban development, and, crucially, finding the needed money.

“Integration of a climate resilience agenda has the potential to systematically build resilience of cities and its systems, reduce vulnerability and achieve the desired development goal,” the report concludes.

Samuel Mintz is an AlertNet Climate intern.

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