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Cities across the world are coming up with action plans to adapt to climate change, but incremental adaptation solutions have not led to transformative change

Frequent flooding due to extreme rainfall is the new climate reality in India’s cities (Photo by WRI)

Frequent flooding due to extreme rainfall is the new climate reality in India’s cities (Photo by WRI)

In 2019, incessant rainfall in India, the heaviest in 25 years, led to a series of flooding across the country, claiming at least 200 people and displacing more than a million. The cities were particularly affected, with debilitating floods in Mumbai, Vadodara, Varanasi, Pune and Patna catching municipal authorities on the wrong foot and bringing these thickly populated areas to a standstill for days on end.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt in South Asia in the form of erratic rainfall patterns predicted by climatologists. And most of the cities, which are still rapidly expanding, are not prepared for it, although there are a few exceptions.

In 2006, flooding in Surat left more than 75 percent of the city underwater, causing major economic and other losses. The flooding was caused by an emergency release from the upstream Ukai reservoir. The city took a series of coordinated action so that the experience of 2006 was not repeated.

Around 2010, authorities in Surat began a process that strengthened understanding of how more intensive periods of projected rainfall due to climate change would magnify the risk of floods. The municipal authority decided to invest in an end- to-end early warning system, including last mile communication via SMS and other mechanisms throughout the city.

The system included more rainfall monitoring in the upper catchment and advances in hydrologic and hydraulic modeling to better evaluate rainfall on the streams feeding the reservoirs, water released from dams, and impacts on downstream communities. The city also took steps to integrate different sources of information and models. Together, these measures widened the window of advance warning from less than one day to as much as four days, expanding options for residents, businesses, and community and relief organizations to plan and prepare.

Climate intervention in cities

According to a new report — Unlocking the Potential for Transformative Climate Adaptation in Cities —the success of this intervention was the establishment of a new institutional coordination mechanism called the Surat Climate Change Trust, which ensured regular sharing of information while also establishing decision-making protocols among downstream city officials, state disaster management authorities, the national agency charged with dam management, the irrigation department, and the meteorological department.

Released today at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, the study highlights three key action areas that cities can focus on to help advance transformative urban adaptation to tackle climate change. It is part of a series of background papers commissioned by the Global Commission on Adaptation to inform its flagship report — Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience — which finds that changes in five key areas, including in cities, could generate USD 7.1 trillion in net benefits between 2020 and 2030. The commission is led by former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, co-chaired by tech tycoon Bill Gates and International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, and convened by 20 countries. See: Invest in climate adaptation to reap benefits, avert losses later

By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas, with the most rapid growth occurring in under-resourced cities in the global south that have large vulnerable populations and low capacity to adapt to climate change, says the new report by World Resources Institute. These cities need not only climate adaptation solutions but transformative change that helps shift them on a track towards more equitable, more sustainable growth.

“Urban development that is blind to climate risks has ended up significantly increasing exposure to climate hazards in cities,” said Anjali Mahendra, co-author of the report and Director of Research at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “But successful urban adaptation is about more than just withstanding storms, floods and heat; we must plan, deliver, and finance infrastructure and core services in cities differently, relying significantly on nature-based solutions.”

There are already more than 880 million people living in informal settlements worldwide, with limited access to shelter, electricity, clean water, sanitation and employment. Climate impacts are likely to worsen access to such services, especially for vulnerable populations, including women, children and the elderly, migrants, indigenous populations and minorities, according to the report.

Sea-level rise and storm surges alone could cost coastal cities USD 1 trillion each year by 2050, affecting more than 800 million people, the report estimated. Urban areas in drylands, with over 2 billion people, face increased water stress and frequent droughts that exacerbate health and food insecurity, while the impacts of excessive heat continue to increase.

Behavioural changes

Transformative change requires behaviour and lifestyle changes, and not just infrastructure improvements, the report said. The paper highlighted three key action areas that cities can focus on to help advance transformative urban adaptation.

It suggested that there is a need to mainstream information on climate risks into planning and delivery of urban infrastructure and services, while strengthening local capacity to act on that information. Secondly, it recommended building climate resilience by upgrading living conditions in vulnerable communities and informal settlements, drawing upon local experience and community knowledge. Lastly, it is necessary to prioritise nature-based solutions to holistically manage water and heat risks.

Coordinated governance and integrated planning by accountable institutions are keys to success, the report said. “Cities must adapt to climate change in ways that correct underlying inequalities, while remaining centres of opportunity for people and economic powerhouses for nations,” said Ani Dasgupta, Global Director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “This requires new types of institutions, communities, built environments, and production and consumption systems. But done carefully, transformative adaptation can put cities on a stronger, safer path that offers opportunity and a higher quality of life for all.”


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