* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.The cyclone is a grim reminder that urban areas need to identify the vulnerable and plan ahead for catastrophes
The effects of climate change are clearly visible and we can expect more severe weather events, such as cyclones, floods, droughts and heat waves in the future. Since the severe cyclonic storm Hudhud pounded the coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh, including Vishakhapatnam, which is the most important industrial base in the state, it is expected that it would take weeks, if not months, for them to recover from Hudhud’s effects. The city looks like a war-torn zone: streets are littered with uprooted trees, electricity poles, communication towers and other debris. Most of the affected areas have no electricity, and communication systems have crashed. An epidemic in the form of water-borne diseases is waiting to strike, while lack of clean drinking water, milk and other essential commodities are only adding to the woes of the residents.
Coasts are sensitive to sea-level rise, precipitation and warmer ocean temperatures. In addition, rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are causing the oceans to absorb more of the gas and become more acidic, thereby affecting the ecosystem. Since 1870, global sea level has risen by about 20 cm at an average rate of 1.7 mm/year. But in recent decades, the rate has risen sharply to 2.5 mm/year. Climate change could affect coastal areas in a number of ways.
A recent study by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Planning Climate Resilient Coastal Cities: Learnings from Panaji and Visakhapatnam, India, focuses on the impact of sea-level rise and other climatic conditions in coastal areas, and how vulnerable coasts can gear up to face risks posed by climate change, natural disasters and other extreme events. “India's coastal cities are particularly vulnerable on account of sea level rise as an impact of climate change, as well as the increase in frequency and intensity of climate related extreme events, which in recent years have caused substantial damage to life and property,” says Dr R K Pachauri, Director General, TERI.
TERI’s report has identified the vulnerable hotspots of Panaji and Visakhapatnam, where the changing sea levels have been overlaid, and spatially represented it on the digital elevation model. The study further gives sector-specific recommendations on planning and implementation of climate resilient measures for the two cities.
Coastal resilience is an important issue in more ways than one. India’s east coast has faced three severe cyclonic storms during the last year alone. An estimated 320 million people in India today live in coastal areas. The country’s coastal areas are spread over eight per cent of the geographical area in 84 districts falling within 13 states and Union Territories. Coastal and ocean activities, such as marine transportation of goods, offshore energy drilling, resource extraction, fish cultivation, recreation, and tourism are integral to the nation's economy. Therefore, experts feel coastal cities need to plan and implement climate risk management strategies as an integral part of city development.
“Urban infrastructure assets have a long design life, sometimes around 100 years. Introducing features that allow climate resilience into the design of infrastructure and services would not only provide long-term safety from climate vagaries, but would also help reduce the damage and associated costs in case of extreme climatic events,” says Dr Divya Sharma, Fellow, Centre for Research in Sustainable Urban Development and Transport Systems, Sustainable Habitat Division, TERI.
The vulnerability assessments of the two cities were carried out with the objective to understand the impacts of rise in sea level and vulnerability of Panaji to climate change induced events like extreme precipitation and Visakhapatnam to extremes of precipitation, cyclones and storm surges.
Mr Vinod C. Menon, Former Member, National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), says: “In the last 270 years, 21 of the 23 major cyclones with casualty figures of about 10,000 lives or more worldwide occurred mostly in India and Bangladesh, over the area surrounding the Indian subcontinent. The insights from TERI’s studies on climate resilience in Visakhapatnam and Panaji will help address the threats posed by storm surges, cyclones, cloud bursts, floods, tsunami, climate change and sea level rise and other hydro-meteorological disasters in the coastal areas, as increasing trends of urbanization are putting high density clusters at risk in the newly-emerging coastal cities in the country.”
The report makes recommendations and steps to be undertaken in ecologically-sensitive areas, solid waste management, heritage and tourism, water supply and sewerage and drainage. It also talks about how coastal areas can adopt structural and non-structural measures to deal with the risks posed by climate change.
“While there is an element of uncertainty regarding the occurrence of extreme climate events, long-term planning and integration of climate-related concerns in land-use and urban development planning will reap unprecedented benefits. Mainstreaming climate resilience into the urban development planning paradigm based on the city specific climate vulnerability would ensure long-term climate resilience and sustainability of Indian cities and safety and well-being of the people,” adds Dr Sharma.
Cyclone Hudhud is a grim reminder that urban areas should quickly identify the most vulnerable areas and plan for future catastrophes.