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Resiliency Urbanism: Studies of Climate Adaptation in Four Indian Cities

January 2, 2020
Center for Urban and Regional Studies
Aerial view of Surat, India.

Surat, India. One of four rapidly growing cities studied for climate adaptation. Image: Google Maps.

India is in a massive urban transition happening at the same time as dramatic climate change. With an urban population expected to double by 2050, India’s cities are engines of economic growth, but also at great risk due to climate change events.

“While disaster mitigation is all important, cities will have to adapt, and the point of our research is to emphasize that the time to adjust and adapt is now,” explained Meenu Tewari, associate professor of city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill.

With help from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies-supported grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Tewari and her research colleagues from the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) chose four cities in India for an in-depth study. In looking at the cities of Surat, Pune, Kochi and Ludhiana, they found that climate adaption is a spatially-rooted, highly variable process that can have important development and equity outcomes. Specifically, they asked:

  • What motivates resource-constrained cities burdened with huge development deficits and weak planning institutions to act on perceived climate risks?
  • How can adapting to the risks of climate change actually enhance the economic robustness and competitiveness of cities?
  • Under what conditions can economic development and climate adaptation go hand-in-hand, reinforcing each other, rather than be inevitable trade-offs?
  • How is this local process playing out in India’s fastest-growing secondary cities?

Looking at patterns across their four cities, they found that when cities faced a gradual onset of events that slowly built up over time, such as temperature rise, poor air quality, pollution, ground water depletion and sea level rise, the response was limited. When cities experienced repeated, sudden-onset climate related events, such as urban flooding and unusually heavy precipitation, local governments and city elite were more amenable to climate action. Tewari and her colleagues suggest that a climate-aware strategic plan that involves key stakeholders and brings them around the same table can pay economic dividends for the cities and lower the cost of resiliency-related adjustments over time.

They also found that the cities acted when something of deep value to them, including their public reputation and self-image, was impacted. Examples of this include situations in Surat where a massive flood-related contagious disease outbreak badly impacted the city’s reputation as a manufacturing hub and damaged the city’s (and economic elite’s) bottom line. Likewise, the bureaucracy’s own self-image of competence was called into question on a very public national and international stage. For Pune and Kerala, the team found that when strong advocacy or civic groups were active and organized, they were able to push climate action to the top of the city’s agenda (such as zoning to ecologically sensitive hillsides and estuaries). This meant increased funding and technical assistance from higher level governments and non-state external actors.

As an illustration, Tewari tells the story of Surat and the floods that resulted in an episode of plague that hit the city in 1994.

“These events from 1994 are generally regarded as an important turning point for economic and climate performance of Surat.” In a striking pivot, the city went from being the dirtiest in the country to the cleanest after these disasters. Tewari continues, “Surat’s mediocre, ineffective bureaucracy became one of the more efficient and capable local governments in India and these changes have not faded in the 25 years since.” But Surat has faced floods for over 100 years. What was different about 1994 that turned things around in ways that have stuck? She points to several factors:

  • First, the nature of the disease – the return of the dreaded bubonic plague – shocked everyone. It received immediate national and international notoriety.
  • The contagious disease was not isolated to the city’s poor quarters but could potentially affect anyone in the city. The interests of the elite and poor in stopping its spread were aligned.
  • Half the city’s workforce is migrant, many of whom fled in fear. Likewise, buyers were afraid to come in. This created a dent in the business reputation of the city and strongly impacted the industrial elite.
  • There was a public shaming of the local bureaucracy on a global scale – a calling into question of their competence.
  • The twin events of flood and plague could not be labeled as “natural disasters” alone. They were human-made and avoidable.
  • With powerful political, economic and self-interests aligned, the city acted – and very much in the public eye.

To control flood-related disease contagion, Surat municipal and health officials realized they needed to act on solid waste, garbage, sewage and drainage first. The initial response was in the city’s slums. Organizational reforms followed, which brought municipal officers and workers out in the streets for real-time reconnaissance on a daily basis. Once open drains had been paved and sewerage and garbage disposal handled, Surat redoubled its focus on securing the city’s water system.

The results brought public appreciation and trust, which in turn had financial consequences in the form of funding and grants from national and multilateral sources, as well as awards and positive attention from higher levels of government. The public trust and appreciation, and an alignment of interest among the political and business elite and the different classes to keep the city clean, has been the motivation for city officials to sustain their good performance.

When does industry act on climate threats?

“Little is understood of how climate change impacts industrial performance, productivity or the organization of work,” said Tewari. “Using field research and multi-year data from firms, we found that worker productivity declines by as much as four to five percent per degree temperature rise on the hottest days.” Estimates imply that warming between 1971 and 2009 may have decreased manufacturing output in India by at least three percent.

“In both the textile and diamond industries, we found that the highest value-adding segments of the work-chain were climate controlled,” noted Tewari. “but the lowest paid workers in the lowest value-adding segments were not protected from the heat. This inequity cannot be addressed if left to the market alone. It is an occasion where the government needs to intervene on behalf of unprotected workers.”

Other findings from Tewari’s team recognized that urban form can influence both economic productivity and the cost of climate security. In addition, they found that a city’s climate and economic security cannot be limited to municipal boundaries alone.

“At the end, the biggest surprise was when our quantitative work resonated with what our case study and qualitative work in Surat, Kochi and Pune had already suggested – that a set of social factors associated with equity, inclusion and literacy were associated with a city’s adaptive capacity as well as its relative competitiveness,” said Tewari.

“Making progress on improving equity can help improve economic drivers and climate resilience.”

“Our conclusion pointed to the importance of thinking about fostering a new kind of ‘resiliency’ urbanism – an urbanism that isn’t about bouncing back to status quo after economic or climate disruptions. Rather an urbanism that is transformative – that bounces back and does things differently to really make cities places for humans to flourish.”

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