Climate disconnect in India’s smart cities mission

The recent spate of floods in India has rekindled conversation on the need for smart city development that explicitly builds in resilience in planning and decision-making

Climate resilience has failed to find mention in a cross-section of smart city proposals in India, though a number these urban centres are already engaged in projects aimed at assessing climate impacts and building resilience. It has been over two years since the Indian government kicked off its flagship smart city mission. Ninety cities have since been selected for funding under the programme. The total investment is estimated at INR 1,892.6 billion (USD 29 billion) and proposed projects are together expected to impact over 95 million people.

However, Indian cities have recently grabbed the spotlight for another reason. Rising instances of flooding are regularly bringing cities to a standstill, resulting in significant damage to life and property. A preliminary count of extreme weather events in the last five years presents a sobering trend. In this year so far, reports suggest that over 1,000 people have died across India, Bangladesh and Nepal following the worst monsoon floods to hit South Asia in recent memory.

Cities such as Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Guwahati have been affected by floods between 2013 and 2017. The size of a city or its available resources has not been a predictor of better preparedness.

Floods apart, heatwave related deaths have become another frequent concern. Bhubaneswar suffered a heatwave in 2013, Hyderabad in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The entire Indian northern and central belt was affected by extreme heat in 2016.

Mapping climate trends in smart cities

Climate-linked trends have been evident in cities for over two and half decades. An aggregation of available data between 1990 and 2013 in the first 20 Indian cities selected under the smart city mission indicates that climatic shifts are already occurring in urban India. In many instances, the impacts from these events have been exacerbated by rapid unplanned urbanisation, overcrowding, lack of inclusive growth and planning, poor maintenance and lack of upgradation of old infrastructure.

Climate trends between 1990 and 2013 in 20 Smart Cities

Climate trends between 1990 and 2013 in 20 ‘Smart Cities’

What’s more, climate-related impacts are expected to increase in frequency and intensity in the future. The frequency of heat waves is expected to rise, made worse by urban heat islands; and rainfall is projected to become intense and erratic in some regions. Linked to the two, vector- and water-borne diseases are likely to become an even bigger public health challenge.

No explicit focus on climate resilience

Given that Indian cities are facing climate impacts that will probably worsen, it stands to reason that a two-year-old programme like the smart city mission — the largest government driven pan-India effort on urban development — should explicitly focus on urban climate resilience. If the smart city proposals are any indication, then the answer is rather ambiguous.

A study by TARU Leading edge — an organisation working closely with cities — comparing the first 20 approved smart city plans indicates that there is no explicit focus on climate change in any of the 20 city plans analysed. The cities examined are Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Surat, Indore, Kochi, Guwahati, Bhubaneswar, Aizawl and Panaji and the study was entitled Climate Change and Disaster Resilience in Indian Cities: Preparedness of City Governments.

In 17 of the 20 cities examined, requests for funds are predominantly targeted at area-based development across sectors as opposed to pan-city initiatives. It means is that there is greater emphasis on seeking funds for specific projects as opposed to interventions that address citywide development. Climate resilience, for instance, can be categorised as a crosscutting theme, but does not feature in any plan.

Smart city proposal costs (Source: Climate Change in Cities: Innovations in Multi-Level Governance, 2017)

Smart city proposal costs (Source: Climate Change in Cities: Innovations in Multi-Level Governance, 2017)

It is widely accepted that there are significant overlaps between promoting good development (even in a business-as-usual scenario) and building climate resilience. For instance, ensuring water security can buffer a city against dry spells, and improved housing for poor can limit exposure to extreme weather events. In that context, some of the smart city suggestions potentially build resilience in a default (but not explicit) setting. This is primarily visible in the water, energy efficiency, and sewage and storm water management sectors in the city proposals.

Focus on disasters, not future impacts

In addition, there is some direct focus in addressing natural disasters in cities such as Chennai, Guwahati, Bhubaneswar and Vishakhapatnam. This appears to be driven by their experiences of past disaster events. For instance, in Vishakhapatnam, there is a suggestion for a shore protection plan to counter tsunamis and prevent beach erosion. In Bhubaneswar, the focus, among other things, is on setting up an early warning system for flood and cyclones.

In Chennai, there is a suggestion on sensor-based water level monitoring, along with a surveillance system to forecast and generate warnings for floods and tsunamis. In Guwahati there is request for a hydrological information system (HIS) to be installed for generating real time data for flood forecasting.

However, tackling disasters, based on historical trends alone, is insufficient. It precludes a focus on climate variability over time as well the risk of impacts from slow onset events, such as sea level rise and rising temperatures.

Under-funded on disaster preparedness

Historically, funding on disaster risk resilience in cities has been relatively low. A study comparing fiscal provisions for urban climate and disaster resilience across ten cities in India notes that the per capita capital expenditure in sectors closely linked to disaster resilience is insufficient compared to other areas of funding.

Sectors including sewerage and sanitation, water supply, storm water drainage, solid waste management, economic development, urban amenities and vulnerable populations were all found to be under-funded. For instance, the per capita annual expenditure by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai on sewage and sanitation has not exceeded INR 250 between 2010 and 2016. On storm water drains, annual per capita expenditure was less than INR 15 until 2015. In 2016, it shot up to INR 350. In addition, disaster management is a component rarely found in the budget documents of urban local bodies.

Compounding the problem is the fact that there is no explicit focus in city plans on initiatives that consider climate and disaster risks over time. For any consideration of climate resilience, plans need to be robust against multiple climate scenarios in the medium to long term. This is especially true in the context of smart cities where there is a focus on building and improving long life infrastructure such as housing, roads, flyovers, water and energy transmission infrastructure etc. which need to be able to withstand future stressors.

Integration required

Many Indian cities are already involved in climate resilient projects, so why are they not integrated in city development plans? The concept of urban climate resilience is not new in India. There has been a gradual rise in learning in many Indian cities on urban disaster and climate adaptation over the past decade. The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) was set up in 2008 and has since partnered with over 30 cities across Asia. The network comprising of external organisations, urban local bodies and NGOs, has conducted vulnerability assessments, and also developed city resilience strategies in a number of cities.

In Indore, for instance, two pilot projects are currently being implemented. In Surat, the Urban Health Climate Research Centre has been set up to address public health and climate change and is being funded by the Surat Municipal Corporation. In Guwahati, relevant recommendations have also been incorporated in the New and Revised Building Bye-laws being prepared by municipality. In Mysore and Bhubaneswar, a training programme on understanding climate change has been conducted.

Similarly, although narrower in reach, the 100 Resilient Cities initiative has focused on the cities of Surat (Gujarat) and Panaji (Goa) to develop more detailed city-level planning and preparedness for climate induced events. The Asian Development Bank has also set up an Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund for Asia and has begun work on building resilience in an integrated manner in Mysore, Vishakhapatnam, and Kolkata.

As part of the state climate plan process, most Indian states have initiated (or completed) district-level vulnerability and risk assessments to define vulnerability better. The awareness and information, therefore, on sub-national climate vulnerability as well as urban resilience strategies exist but does not seem to be aligned to city development planning, particularly the smart city proposals examined.

Challenges persist

Some challenges clearly persist in a project-based approach to climate action. There is a gap in ownership of climate resilience strategies among some city-level government agencies; mainstreaming climate resilience in city-level planning and budgeting is still an uphill effort. Cities already struggle in planning and funding other critical development projects and climate change is pressuring an already burdened system. Finally, with few exceptions, the conversation on city resilience has not made it into the national policy discourse in any meaningful way, which could translate to a central mandate to cities.

Given that 90 cities have already submitted smart city proposals and are focussed on implementation, there is an urgent need for cities to look at aligning existing vulnerability and risk assessments and resilience efforts. New and improved urban infrastructure and services need to ultimately hold up to future climate impacts.

Crucially, city agencies as well as state governments (given their greater fiscal agency and mandate over certain aspects of urban planning and spending) need to apply a climate lens on key urban projects, whether they focus on area-based development or pan-city initiatives. Not doing so could, in the long run, undermine the smart city mission.

The full report on smart cities and climate resilience in India can be found in the forthcoming book Climate Change in Cities: Innovations in Multi-Level Governance.

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