Cities need to invest in living infrastructures to be climate resilient

It is being increasingly admitted that cities need to have living infrastructure in order to be able to deliver social, environmental and economic services to their inhabitants.

COP 23, the UN Climate Change Conference at Bonn, held during 6th to 17th November this year, brought together over 16,000 participants, including about 9,200 government officials, 5,500 representatives of UN bodies and agencies, intergovernmental organizations and civil society organizations, and 1,200 members of the media.

On the ‘Global Action Day for Water’ during the COP 23 UN Climate Change Conference at Bonn this November, representatives of international communities signed a “nature-based solution declaration” to “encourage the use of natural systems in managing healthy water supplies.” It has been estimated that financing of water adaptation activities would have to be to the tune of 295 billion USD to meet the targets envisaged by these plans in meeting the Paris Goals.

Even though majority of national climate plans prioritize actions on water, there is need to do a lot more, it was felt during events on this day at COP. Water needs to emerge as a much bigger priority in national policies and the links of water be established with other key sectors such as energy, food security, health, education, etc. it was felt. It was also felt there is a growing need for closer cooperation with people and institutions working on climate change among themselves as well as with those who are working on urban issues and other pertinent issues such as agriculture, energy, health and oceans.

The need for resilient cities in context of water use and management was flagged in the events on the Action Day. Mariet Verhoef-Cohen, President of the Women for Water Partnership, and Co-Chair of Water Scarcity in Agriculture Platform (WASAG) said, “Sustainable use of water for multiple purposes must remain a way of life and needs to be at the center of building resilient cities and human settlements and ensuring food security in a climate change context.” The events have rightly called for harmonizing water and climate policies.

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Cities need to prioritise climate action

This COP was unique because for the first time a small island country was given the presidential role. The COP 23 was presided over by Frank Bainimarama, the Prime Minister of Fiji. On the opening, Bainimarama said, “The human suffering caused by intensifying hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, floods and threats to food security caused by climate change means there is no time to waste.”

Cities are not only a major contributor to climate change but also vulnerable to its impacts. A UN report estimates that the current world population of 7.6 billion, which is expected to reach to about 8.6 billion by 2030, will grow to 9.8 billion by 2050. Another estimate puts that 65 per cent of global population will be living in cities by 2030, and most of the additional population projected by 2050 will be added to cities.

Cities are already consuming somewhere between 75 to 78 per cent of world’s energy and produce about 76 per cent of all carbon dioxide and significant amounts of other greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, cities have been impacted by frequent floods and other devastations due to storm surges, sea level rise, increasing heat and heatwave conditions, so on and so forth.

With recent frightening data about faster ice melt and sea rise, climate resilience of cities across the world has come in for a fresh review. At Bonn, a lot of innovative ways were at display to make cities climate resilient. From trying to become 100 per cent renewable energy based cities to ensuring equity in infrastructure and services to the poor so that they can better cope to the impacts of climate change, cities have been trying many ways to be climate resilient.

Taking the Nature’s ways

What attracts us are some of the ways the cities are trying to take to promote ‘living infrastructure.’ It is being increasingly admitted that cities need to have living infrastructure in order to be able to deliver social, environmental and economic services to their inhabitants. Barbara Norman, Barbara Norman, Chair of Urban & Regional Planning and Director of Canberra Urban & Regional Futures, University of Canberra, in an article published by The Conversation, believes, “This is done by integrating trees, shrubs, grass and open spaces (green infrastructure); rainscapes and waterways (blue infrastructure); and soils, surface and man-made structures (grey infrastructure) into the fabric of the city”.

Sponge cities: an example of living infrastructure

Cities are facing both water scarcity and flooding. What they can do is to innovate new ways, looking into their geographical positioning, to manage their water resources to help fight both scarcity and abundance and be climate resilient.

A model that is being globally reported at the moment is called the ‘sponge cities’.

The ‘sponge city’ retains almost all the rainwater it receives and uses it in a planned manner. Harvesting rainwater has been a traditional way in most parts of India, a knowledge which our planners are losing fast and our cities have failed to inherit despite of getting a lot of rural population into their fold by the passing year. Our cities have lost most of their surface water bodies such as lakes, ponds and other such structures which helped them harvest rainwater, recharge ground water and come to their rescue both during drought years and heavy rainfall years.

China, it is reported, is taking the concept of ‘sponge cities’ seriously. That country is faced with the dual challenge of rapid urbanisation and poor water management like none else. China’s state owned media Xinhua News reported, “Of 657 cities assessed by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, about half are considered water scarce or severely water scarce, according to the standards of the United Nations.” Another half of the Chinese cities are unable to reach national standards flood prevention. Official versions reported in media say that, of the more than 230 cities affected by flooding in 2013, 90 per cent of the older urban areas did not even have basic flood plans.

In 2013, the Chinese President called for development of sponge cities and the next year the government pledged billions of dollars in support for building 16 sponge cities across the country. The sponge cities will have different designs for different cities. For the Mass Sports Center of South China’s Shenzhen City, an area of 118,403 square feet has been developed with porous bricks and flood-tolerant plants. During rains, the permeable pavements and rain gardens would soak up most of the rainwater. Some of this collected water will infiltrate into the subsurface soil, recharging aquifers, and the rest would percolate down to a cistern buried below the plaza and then be used for irrigation or cleaning.

There are various other models of sponge cities being innovated throughout the globe. Rooftop gardens, vegetation cover of walls of tall buildings and many more types of models to capture and store rainwater for use in various purposes that has been using freshwater for generations.

As per calculations made by Alicia An, a professor of energy and environment at the City University of Hong Kong, as reported in the Guardian, “a cluster of buildings at her university installed with rooftop gardens could catch enough rain to replace up half of all the toilet water they use. The balmy gardens would also reduce the tropical air temperature by around 1.3C nearby, reducing the energy needed to cool the building”.

Indians can lead the way

In India, many studies are available to show the importance of such concepts. More importantly, as we have already discussed, India has a long history and tradition of harvesting and using rainwater. What it needs now is to aggressively push these concepts in urban planning. While buildings, apartments and other infrastructures being built in urban areas should have these ‘sponge city’ concept integrated, India should do its best to save all the surface water bodies and rivers. Time planners understood that roof top rainwater harvesting is not a substitute of lakes, ponds and other waterbodies, but a supplement.

Then there are many more actions cities need to take. They must now contribute prominently in saving river basins from further degradation, support forest conservation in catchment areas of the river basins, participate in source management and protection of all the water sources they are dependent on – both inside their limits and outside. And finally, living infrastructures such as mangrove forests need be taken special care of, as they protect cities and coasts from vagaries of climate induced disasters, whose frequency and intensity are growing by the year.

This article first appeared on Urban Update

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