Storm warnings of a megacity collapse

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Storm warnings of a megacity collapse

  • The unpredicted spell of staggering rain over Chennai on December 30, 2021 capped a season of repeated monsoon inundation and urban paralysis, coming as a stark reminder to political leaders that they are underestimating the risk of urban collapse due to extreme weather events.
  • Tamil Nadu’s capital, with an international airport and a major seaport, was gridlocked after heavy rain presenting a dystopian picture.
  • The nightmare revived memories of the great deluge of 2015, although the death toll was not comparable.

Question of Developmental approach

  • The monsoon of 2021 in Chennai, with its black swan evening of 24 cm rain, raises a question: would urban development be more sustainable and equitable if the guiding principle is climate change?
  • This new approach would prioritise ecological and sustainability concerns over aesthetics, and reject market-oriented ‘fantasy plans’, as some scholars describe an increasingly flashy vision of urbanisation.
  • While green roofs, electric vehicles and solar power would be welcome, they would not replace conservation of natural flood plains, rivers, mangroves, marshes and gardens.
  • It would be the future-proofing that India’s cities need, to avert sudden dysfunction caused by climate events.

Poor regulatory apparatus

  • Loose metropolitan boundaries with little control over neighbouring local governments produce amorphous building regulations.
  • In Chennai’s case, unplanned densification is occurring in three neighbouring districts which are linked to the core city by local transport and are hence part of a larger metropolitan area.
  • Here, traditional natural assets such as wetlands, reservoirs and watercourses are being lost rapidly.
  • This is typical of other major Indian cities as well, where population growth at the peripheries has been accelerated by anomalous land and housing price increases at the core and absence of adequate good rental housing.

Need for a multidimensional approach

  • All dimensions of a city’s growth, starting with affordable housing, play a central role in adapting to future climate change.
  • They can lower carbon emissions growth even during infrastructure creation if biophilic design and green materials are used.
  • A large volume of new housing stock is being created in the 7,933 urban settlements in the country today, of which the bulk is in a small number of million-plus cities.
  • Less than half of all cities have master plans, and even these are ruled by informality, since both influential elites and the poor encroach upon commons such as wetlands and river banks, as Chennai and Mumbai have witnessed.
  • After a catastrophic flood, the emphasis is on encroachment removal directed almost entirely at the less affluent.

Suggestions of Reports

  • In its report on Reforms in Urban Planning Capacity in India (September 2021), NITI Aayog cites the COVID-19 pandemic as a revelatory moment that underscores the dire need for all cities to become healthy cities by 2030.
  • Climate impacts are certain to affect cities even more fundamentally and permanently.
  • Consistent with the approach of the present Central government, NITI Aayog recommends 500 priority cities to be included in a competitive framework, adopting participatory planning tools, surveys and focus group discussions to assess the needs and aspirations of citizens.
  • There is considerable importance given to technological tools, private sector talent and mapping strategies to identify a city’s assets and to plan spatially.
  • There is need for a central role for democratically-elected local governments, to ensure greater inclusion and a sense of community.
  • In Tamil Nadu, urban local bodies have not had elections for a decade, while the long coastline of the State has been hit by cyclones that have crippled Chennai and other towns.

Institutional need

  • A top-level department for climate change adaptation is best suited to serve as a unifier, bringing all relevant departments in a State, such as housing and urban development, transport, water supply etc to work with elected local governments that set priorities and become accountable.
  • Neglect of municipal councils, lack of empowerment and failure to build capacity among municipal authorities have produced frequent urban paralysis in extreme weather.
  • In Chennai, the focus after every flood has been on the storm water drain network, while commercial encroachment of the vast marshland in Pallikaranai, a natural sponge for the city, gets insufficient attention.
  • This experience echoes the fate of encroachments along Mumbai’s Mithi river, where the Mithi River Development and Protection Authority, after the 2005 flood, favoured removal of dwellings, while sparing ‘permanent structures’ that were too big to touch.

Way forward

  • We need a mission that mitigates flood risk and provides a pathway to water security.
  • The most promising idea across the world at this time appears to be the idea of “sponge cities”.
  • The idea of a sponge city is to make cities more permeable so as to hold and use the water which falls upon it.
  • Sponge cities absorb the rain water, which is then naturally filtered by the soil and allowed to reach urban aquifers.
  • This allows for the extraction of water from the ground through urban or peri-urban wells.
  • This water can be treated easily and used for city water supply.
  • In built form, this implies contiguous open green spaces, interconnected waterways, and channels and ponds across neighbourhoods that can naturally detain and filter water.
  • It implies support for urban ecosystems, bio-diversity and newer cultural and recreational opportunities.
  • These can all be delivered effectively through an urban mission along the lines of the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) and Smart Cities Mission.