On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry got stuck in flooded Delhi streets and reached an hour late to a function where he was to speak to IIT students.
“Don’t know how you have all got here, you must have needed boats,” he told the IIT students, taking a jibe at the city’s poor infrastructure.
Interestingly it is an IIT study that has been referred to extensively in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) latest Assessment Report that has sufficiently warned about such disasters in Delhi and other cities.
IPCC reports are to be forgotten. John Kerry’s jibe became the prime time debate in Indian television channels the same evening.
Some news channels did a quick search for personal boats available in online retail stores and suggested Delhiites should now start buying such boats.
Why not? When the urban planners refuse to learn lessons from repeated disasters and roads turn into waterways, the citizens have to find their own ways to wade through these.
Motor vehicles are no help on rivers, boats are. As we encroach upon our flood plains, water bodies and natural water channels to replace them with roads, buildings and flyovers, we have to stay prepared for such extreme events with appropriate gears.
What we witnessed in Delhi on Wednesday was witnessed in Mumbai in 2005 and then in Chennai in 2015 and in many cities in between, during the last decade.
In July this year we witnessed the same in Gurugram, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and in most of our cities.
Such is the “smartness” of our planned cities that a few centimeters of rainfall in few hours can cripple our cities for days.
Extreme events outsmart out planners
It is not only our country. Talk about entire Asia and extreme events such as cloudbursts and related flash floods are going to increase in intensity.
And our cities are going to be most vulnerable to such calamities as because we are overpopulating our cities at the cost of the ecology.
Asia is the world’s largest urbanizing region. It is estimated that by the year 2050, about 64% of the population of the region will live in cities. Asia is also one of the worst victims of climate change impacts.
India is urbanizing fast too. Urbanization in the country is generally characterized by unplanned expansions of habitation, growing poverty and sheer lack of urban infrastructure including basic amenities.
The vulnerability of Indian cities thus comes from another important aspect – climate change.
Extreme events such as cloudbursts resulting in excessive and incessant rainfall that cause floods and related devastation have been a matter of specific concern for Indian urban planners in recent times.
Such extreme events have caught our urban planners and policy makers unawares more often than not.
While our urban planning is still joggling to build their capacities to have better plans to not only accommodate the growing influx of population into the urban areas and provide them with basic amenities, such floods are increasingly challenging their capabilities.
No ears for serious warnings
A recent World Bank study estimates that due to climate change induced floods the world’s 136 largest coastal cities could face a combined annual loss of $1 trillion (750 billion euros) by 2050 unless they drastically raise their defences.
A report of the IPCC had in 2014 put Delhi among three of the world’s mega-cities that face high flood risks (Tokyo and Shanghai are the other two).
Mumbai, where the 2005 flood virtually stirred up serious debates on urban flooding in the country for the first time, also features in this list along with Kolkata.
Among the top Asian cities that are vulnerable to coastal flooding by 2070 are Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Bangkok, Rangoon and Hai Phong.
Environmental activists like Manoj Misra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, who have studied the Yamuna ecology extensively, have been raising the issue of encroachment of the river’s floodplains in the city since long.
However, development these days is basically a model where you destroy ecology and do not listen to ecological concerns.
The noisy and lengthy television debates are put on the backburner after the roads are ready to ply motor vehicles. And we don’t find a US official to remind us about our disastrous urban planning every day.
Need to act
Urban planning needs to go beyond traffic management and response to such extreme events. It needs to incorporate, in the planning phase itself, climate change induced disasters and accordingly plan ecology-friendly cities.
We need to free our waterways, lakes, water bodies, drainage lines, flood plains from all sorts of encroachment and if necessary, create more water bodies for harvesting rainwater and recharging ground water.
Sufficient urban green spaces including urban forestry need also be an integrated part of our urban areas.
The city planners need to have a better memory than the length of our prime-time television debates. They cannot take refuge for long in ‘boat jibes’ either.
Ranjan Panda, popularly known as Water Man of Odisha, is an expert on water, sanitation, environment and climate change issues. Views expressed are personal.