Cities need to address urban vulnerabilities emanating from climate change impacts, out of control urban sprawl and unmindful consumption patterns. These trends have enlarged the dangers of natural disasters as cities have lost their original safeguards to mitigate the risks. Every city need to develop a infallible strategy to ensure safety of their resources and more importantly, of their citizens
Urban India has witnessed a new era of change with introduction of new policy regime for improving sustainability and safety of their habitats in new and existing cities. This is not just reflected in the national framework of city development policies but also in the international goals and urban agenda. The 11th Sustainable Development Goal clearly commits to making cities and human settlements more resilient and sustainable, while the New Urban Agenda, adopted in Quito in 2016, mentions ‘resilience’ and ‘efficiency’ over two dozen times. The idea behind formulating these policies is to ensure cities move beyond the unstable state of continuously recovering from hazards, and start foreseeing forthcoming disasters and prepare them accordingly. The challenge is visibly becoming bigger by the day as cities are increasingly turning into places of vulnerability, as illustrated by the growing number of urban dwellers in hazard-prone areas such as deltas and coastlines. Climate change is adding to the woes as it is affecting the rate of recurrence and intensity of weather-related hazards.
Indian cities are vulnerable to various kinds of disasters. According to findings of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), more than 58.6 per cent of the landmass is prone to earthquakes of moderate to very high intensity; over 40 million hectares (12%) of its land is prone to floods and river erosion; close to 5,700 kms, out of the 7,516 kms long coastline is prone to cyclones and tsunamis; 68% of its cultivable area is vulnerable to droughts; and, its hilly areas are at risk from landslides and avalanches. Moreover, India is also vulnerable to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) emergencies and other man-made disasters. Who can forget the Bhopal Gas Tragedy!
The most recent natural disasters relating to extreme weather events, compounded by urban stressors and sprawl, have inflicted much damage, and brought cities and surrounding areas to a standstill include Mumbai floods in 2005, flash floods in Alakananda in 2013, Chennai floods in 2015, heat waves in Hyderabad (2013, 2014, 2015), Kolkata (2015), Bhubaneswar (2013), and the entire Indian Northern and Central belt (2016). The list of such disasters is long and the climate change induced events would repeatedly bring such extreme events more frequently. The cities need to be prepared for these disasters by having resources and skilled manpower for planning resilient urban development and also having resources to mitigate post disaster damages.
Urban land is costly and people migrating to cities without having any prior arrangement or surety of accommodation in formal settlements set up homes alongside nullahs, near land fill sites, river beds coastal areas or anywhere available. Several instances of fire, floods, and landslides affect these habitats the most and it is reported across the country almost every year. The communities living in these areas suffer loss to property and human lives because of their unpreparedness and having no safeguards or training to deal with them. Marginalized groups in cities such as women, children, elderly, migrants and people living with disabilities are the most vulnerable among the vulnerables. Do governments have taken special initiatives to address their issues? The answer would be no.
Floods in the city of Chennai, almost two years ago, proved that. The elderly population in the city faced severe issue. According to a news report published in a local newspaper, senior citizens constituted a significant chunk of the total deaths in the floods. In Ekkattuthaangal, Lt. Col. (retired) G. Venkateshan and his wife Geetha died in their house because no one came for their rescue in time and they drowned in their house. Does administration in our cities have the data of such vulnerable populace? The profiling of such population is significant because they cannot respond adequately because of their physical inability or for whatsoever reasons. And, such data can be helpful in rescue operation. All the city governments must profile such individuals who would need immediate help in the times of disaster.
UNEP Report ‘Resilient and Resource Efficient Cities’ responds to the commitment outlined in paragraph 71 of the New Urban Agenda, “strengthening the sustainable management of resources – including land, water (oceans, seas, and freshwater), energy, materials, forests, and food, with particular attention to the environmentally sound management and minimization of all waste, hazardous chemicals…in a way that considers urban-rural linkages and functional supply and value chains…”
Cities and disaster management
The recently released UN Environment report Resilient and Resource Efficient Cities addresses this issue. It responds to the commitment outlined in paragraph 71 of the New Urban Agenda, “strengthening the sustainable management of resources – including land, water (oceans, seas, and freshwater), energy, materials, forests, and food, with particular attention to the environmentally sound management and minimization of all waste, hazardous chemicals…in a way that considers urban-rural linkages and functional supply and value chains…” UN Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed stressed that “the Paris Agreement, the 2030 Agenda, and the Sendai Framework are intrinsically linked,” adding that “action in one area benefits the others.”
These are the international initiatives to make cities stronger for dealing with disasters but are our cities ready to handle these extreme events on their own? Do Indian cities have City Disaster Management Plan that is based on their vulnerabilities to different kinds of natural and man-made disasters? The Disaster Management Act, 2005 mandates every city to build capacity and resources for mitigating disaster risks. Some of the cities have worked in the direction. Vizag is one example. The city administration with support from UNDP and USAID formulated CDMP for the city. The objectives of the project are to prepare the basic CDMP encompassing the elements of the pre and post disaster management activities including capacity building. Further it describes how life, assets, infrastructure losses and adverse impacts can be mitigated and minimized with advance and proactive measures.
CASE STUDY | New York City
How to maintain utility services in the times of disaster
New York City is currently one of the world’s leading cities in terms of investment for building resilience. This is in part a response to recent disasters: in 2012, Hurricane Sandy destroyed entire neighbourhoods and paralysed utility facilities and networks. According to Sanders and Milford (2014), more than 400 housing authority buildings containing around 35,000 housing units lost power, heat and/or hot water during the superstorm. New York’s exposure to environmental hazards and the prospect of continued population growth have driven significant public planning and investment in recent years.
Six months after Sandy hit the northeastern coast of the United States, the city government upgraded its PlaNYC strategy – initially released under the title ‘A Greener, Greater New York – and launched ‘A Stronger, More Resilient New York’ in 2013, a long-term plan to tackle issues related to climate change impacts. Amongst its 257 programmes, the new PlaNYC includes initiatives directed to upgrade infrastructure and protect critical services to ensure continuity in the occurrence of hazards.
To protect its energy networks, the city has adopted a holistic approach to secure ‘grid resilience’, i.e. a system of electricity storage composed of interconnected micro-grids acting as single controllable entities that can operate in island mode should any individual modules be damaged. Building grid resilience involves upgrading power poles and increase energy storage to allow the reliable and fast reconfiguration of the energy system when portions of the grid are down. Such power grid enables continuity of service provision by safeguarding energy against power outages and allowing rapid power restoration in case of disruption caused by a man-made or climate induced event.
Although enabling resilience, building such a system is financially expensive and can be considered inefficient in multiple ways. According to the report, “nearly two-thirds of every megawatt US power plants produce never does a bit of useful work. Some of it is lost due to the natural resistance of power lines. Some is lost as heat during generation. […] some is lost by design when utilities deliberately generate more electricity than they need and shed the access”. As part of New York’s efforts to enhance grid resilience, the system is capable of producing much more energy than it is normally required. On top of this, the system’s transmission lines are buried underground and often prevent potentially more productive land-use. Alternative or supplementary initiatives to address these problems can include the construction of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines to generate renewable power in sufficient amounts for redundancy reserves.
These are also decentralised technologies, so could be linked to separate micro-grids to further support modularity. In order to mainstream this type of activities, New York needs to combine visions of resilience and resource efficiency in its city strategy and translate it into concrete actions such as the adoption of regulations.