Indian cities such Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Delhi are vulnerable to environmental and climate-related risks. But the risks posed by climate change do not merely stop at the environment but are also socio-economic
The UN World Environment Day, celebrated on 5 June annually, serves a dual purpose. On one hand, it offers us an occasion to celebrate our journey towards sustainability so far, while on the other, it provides us with an opportunity for quiet reflection on how far we are yet to go. One such sobering reflection came in the form of the recent 2022 Environment Performance Index by the universities of Yale and Columbia wherein India was ranked last among a cohort of 180 countries.
This comes as no surprise since India, for the longest time, has been a laggard in key issue categories such as climate change performance, environmental health, and ecosystem vitality. Even as early as 2018, a comprehensive HSBC report ranked India first out of 67 countries based on their vulnerability to climate change.
In a similar vein, research firm Verisk Maplecroft’s Environmental Risk Outlook 2021 report cautioned India of an urban disaster in the making, even as it projected 43 Indian cities, including Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Delhi, as the 100 most vulnerable urban centres exposed to environmental and climate-related risks. However, it is pertinent to note that the risks posed by climate change do not merely stop at the environment but are also socio-economic. It thus follows those Indian metropolises and cities, wherein the bulk of India’s economic activity is concentrated, are slated to bear the major economic impacts induced by adverse climate variability. With the post-Covid world economy gradually getting back on track, India needs to expediently futureproof its development trajectory against inadvertent economic shocks so as to avoid the potentially disruptive impacts of climate change.
Water, Water Everywhere…
As per a 2021 report of the IPCC Working Group, an important facet of this future-proofing exercise lies in adapting to and mitigating the effects of the increasing annual and summer monsoon precipitation, as well as the intense and frequent heatwaves and humid heat stress that is to befall South Asia. The case of Mumbai in Maharashtra can serve as a suitable archetype for understanding the vulnerabilities faced by India’s coastal cities in the wake of challenges posed by climate change. In 2016, the National Institute of Oceanography warned that nearly 40 per cent of Mumbai could be underwater in the next 100 years if sea levels continue to rise. Moreover, a 2016 NEERI study estimated that the financial capital may be looking at damages worth Rs 35,00,000 crore by 2050 because of climate change.
With a population of more than 20 million, Mumbai is the eighth-most populous city in the world. Almost 42 per cent of Mumbai lives in slums while occupying only 12 per cent of its total geographic area, giving it the dubious distinction of being the largest slum in Asia. In addition to rising sea levels, climate change increases the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme climate hazards such as cyclonic storms and heavy rains resulting in lethal inland flash floods. As a result, it has been pithily observed by Soumya Sarkar: “The annual dunking Mumbai gets every monsoon has become a part of life for millions.”
It is indeed unfortunate that the exacerbated effects of extreme weather events will be borne by the vulnerable urban poor residing in informal settlements who typically have a low adaptive capacity at the local level. In particular, the most affected will be the historically marginalised Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe populace (such as the traditional fishing Koli community) who constitute close to half of the Mumbai slum-dwelling population. These overlooked communities and neglected areas are slated to bear the brunt of frequent monsoon floodings, landslides, dwindling water supplies, and inadequate sanitation as a result of poor governance and a lack of investment in public infrastructure and commons.
…Nor Any Drop to Drink
The socio-economic consequences of erratic weather patterns are also evident in other parts of Maharashtra, albeit in the forms of ‘water stress’ and ‘heat stress’. India faces a turbulent water future since about half of India (i.e., 600 million Indians) are expected to be living in moderately to severely affected water-stressed areas by 2050. Inland areas are expected to be more severely affected by water stress than those near the coast. With borewells running empty, there remains no water for irrigation. The Economic Survey 2017-18 stated that climate change set off a domino effect of issues manifest in the unavailability of water in dams, suffering livestock, lower agricultural output, the inability of farmers to repay loans, etc. All of the aforesaid ultimately leads to a rise in the number of farmer suicides, unemployment, and migration towards urban centres.
The World Bank estimates that seven of the 10 most-affected climate change hotspot districts in the country now belong to the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. Furthermore, a World Bank monograph titled South Asia’s Hotspots (2018) projected that a carbon-intensive climate scenario will expose India to a total cost of $1,178 billion by 2050. These are worrying statistics since heat stress poses a twofold setback: First, in terms of a decrease in animal labour productivity and second, in decreasing human labour productivity. A 2022 Duke University study suggests that between 2001 and 2020, exposure to high humid heat was associated with approximately 677 billion hours of lost labour per year globally. Thus, labour productivity losses could rise rapidly once certain temperature thresholds are breached.
Food for Thought and Way Forward
A state as prosperous as Maharashtra and a city as wealthy as Mumbai have resources enough to mitigate and adapt to the imminent impacts of climate variability. Pragmatic implementation of obvious solutions remains a low priority for governments, in part since most chronic climate risks are to be disproportionately braced by marginalised communities. Outmoded methods of urban planning, social and political apathy and lack of capacity to respond to climate disasters are some of the other reasons for the grim forecast for coastal cities and metropolises. Thus, it may be surmised that the climate future of Mumbai-Maharashtra is merely symptomatic of the larger socio-economic catastrophe to befall urban centres if India continues ignoring the adoption of climate mitigation policies at the national level and implementation of universal adaptation governance strategies at the local level through appropriate institutional arrangements.
Such portentous predictions for Mumbai in particular and Maharashtra, in general, should serve as timely food for thought on the necessity for more ambitious climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. Suggestions for combatting the impending risks range from developing climate-resilient crops, investing in infrastructure to build climate resilience in cities, increasing the anticipatory adaptive capacity of households through informal-settlement-upgrading programmes, and upgrading trunk infrastructure systems (such as paved roads, piped water mains, sewer and storm drainage systems), etc. Following the aforesaid measures closely will count towards a judicious step in the right direction.
While much more remains to be done, the expectation is that India will come out of the coronavirus pandemic as a more environmentally-conscious nation that respects and upholds the social, economic and environmental protection of its oft-ignored at-risk populations.
The writer is with the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Views expressed are personal.
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