Climate change risk - An adaptation and mitigation agenda for Indian cities - A paper published in the journal Environment and Urbanisation

This paper outlines the much needed adaptation and mitigation agenda for cities in India where the urban population is likely to grow by around 500 million over the next 50 years.
18 Feb 2012
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The paper dwells on the likely changes that climate change is expected to bring in temperature, precipitation and extreme rainfall, drought, river and inland flooding, storms/storm surges/coastal flooding, sea-level rise and environmental health risks, and who within urban populations will be at risk. The paper informs that the climate change in India can be seen in the perspective of a three part transition:

  • A demographic transition that will see India’s population stabilizing at about 1.6 billion in the 2060s
  • A simultaneous rural to urban (RUrban) transition, which will add nearly 500 million people to the country’s urban settlements over this period
  • A simultaneous environmental transition, brown (water, sanitation and environmental health), grey (air and water pollution) and green (climate change).

Thus urbanisation in India will be dominated by:

  • Increase in population, by midcentury, India could have both the largest urban and rural populations of the time
  • Increased pace of rural-urban migration

 This will have an important bearing on global climate vulnerability and the potential for mitigation and adaptation. Hence, the future direction of Indian urbanisation is not only an important domestic concern, but also a major international opportunity to demonstrate the viability of a more sustainable development.  The ongoing agrarian crisis in rural India could be catalysed by climate change into a migratory route, driven by increases in extreme events, greater monsoon variability, endemic drought, flooding and resource conflict.

The paper argues that the challenge for India is to re-examine whether its current development trajectory and growth framework may be more appropriate than an exclusive engagement with mitigation and greener systems and production. A climate policy that has a closer fit with India’s initial conditions, strengths and capacities may serve both the country and the world’s purposes better than a “recycled” programme of action from a rather different context.

Climate change risks that India will have to face include:

Temperature and precipitation changes

  • General increase in temperature affecting agricultural sector
  • Increase in mean surface temperature leading to displacement
  • This regional temperature rise, along with changes in the global climate system and the Indian Ocean monsoon system, may lead to a mean increase of 7–20 per cent in annual precipitation. A 10–15 per cent increase in monsoon precipitation in many regions, a simultaneous precipitation decline of 5–25 per cent in drought-prone central India and a sharp decline in winter rainfall in northern India.
  • A change in the hydrology of many river systems can lead to a modification in the storage capacity and management regime of many dams and reservoirs, thus impacting urban water systems
  • A decrease in the number of rainy days (5–15 days on average) is expected over much of India, along with an increase in heavy rainfall days and in the frequency of heavy rainfall events in the monsoon season
  • Increase in extreme precipitation will require a significant revision in urban planning practices across across cities


  • The most serious climate change risk to the Indian economy and its people is the increased intensity, frequency and geographical coverage of drought. Climate change is expected to increase drought in semi-arid peninsular and western India, forcing more of the landless and small and marginal farmers to migrate to cities
  • The most serious regional impact of climate change would be changes in the river hydrology in the Indo–Gangetic plain and the Brahmaputra valley due to glacial melt and regression of the Himalayan glaciers Hence, an emerging conflict is brewing between cities and the rural areas from where the urban water supply is drawn and to where city water pollution is discharged

River and inland flooding and extreme rainfall events

  • One of the other important climate change risk is increased riverine and inland flooding, especially in northern and eastern India and adjoining Nepal and Bangladesh

Cyclonic storms, storm surge and coastal flooding

  • A sea surface temperature rise of 2–4o C, as anticipated in the Indian Ocean over the century, is expected to induce a 10–20 per cent increase in cyclone intensity

Mean and extreme sea-level rise

  • Data over the last century indicate a mean sea-level rise (SLR) of less than one millimetre per year along the Indian coast. More recent observations suggest an SLR of 2.5 millimetres per year since the 1950s. An SLR of between 30 and 80 centimetres has been projected over the century along India’s coast, based on multiple climate change scenarios

Environmental health risks

  • Climate change is expected to accentuate environment-related health risks, including those from water related diseases (e.g., diarrhoea, cholera and typhoid), due to water scarcity and malaria.

The paper argues that addressing these complex risks is a serious public policy and adaptation management challenge for India. An important new method that can help address these concerns is composite risk assessment and adaptation planning. This would enable a geographically explicit estimation of probabilistic hazard risk, vulnerability and the imputed composite multi-hazard economic risks. Risk prioritisation by hazard, element at risk and location can thereafter be undertaken,assisting in creating evidence-based investment, regional and urban development policies and building a bridge between public agencies, communities and the private sector.

The paper ends by arguing that:

  • Risk adaptation and mitigation measures need to address particular populations and elements at risk within a RUrban landscape to be effective in responding to a heterogeneous field of constraints and opportunities
  • Developing a climate change adaptation framework for urban India will require opening a dialogue on urban development and growth, vulnerability, risk unbundling, the redirection of ongoing investments and programmes and the building of new alliances between a wide range of actors, not often in engagement
  • This would help transform existing cities, to make them more inclusive and productive, thereby reducing structural vulnerability
  • This framework would need to provide a link between national, state and city-level policy, political institutional arrangements, and interventions at city and neighbourhood levels

A copy of the paper can be accessed from this link

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