How climate change is affecting the future of coastal cities and what should be done to prepare for it

June 04, 2021 2:46 PM

It is one of the most densely populated coastal regions in the world, and also the most vulnerable to climate change.

Cyclone TauktaeThe most extreme and visible of these climatic events is the increasing frequency and intensity of tropical storms, or cyclones.

By Amit Khanna, 

The coastline of India is home to over 180 million people, running for more than 7000km and encompassing nine states and four union territories. It is one of the most densely populated coastal regions in the world, and also the most vulnerable to climate change. The cost of this vulnerability was recently experienced first hand during the Tauktae & Yass cyclones.

Historically, cities grew at confluences of trade and business. The sea-faring commerce of the past millennia have ensured that the greatest of our urban centres are sprinkled along the coast. Even today, the majority of a country’s socio economic development depend on its ability to fit into the global ecosystem of international shipping.

This implied advantage is at great risk in the Indian Peninsula for a number of reasons – climate change, unsustainable and unplanned urbanisation, and the generally poor quality of infrastructure for those living on the economic fringes. When working in tandem, these seemingly unconnected forces can erode any potential economic advantages and undermine the economic might of human capital in these areas.

At current rates of human growth, the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario has been linked to thoroughly researched and documented changes in the natural ecosystem, such as the well known danger of an unprecedented rise in mean sea level. Apart from the dangers of repeated flooding, this can result in an irreversible erosion of coastal habitats. Megacities like Mumbai, tourist destinations like Goa and small fishing villages along the coast are all equally at risk. Population displacement would occur on a large scale, with TERI predicting over 5million people spread over 5000 sq.km. being affected in the next few decades.

Apart from the rise in sea level, there are other climatic events that are becoming more extreme. Changes in the otherwise predictable cycle of rainfall can affect agricultural production and therefore, incomes. India’s reliance on a predictable monsoon can be seen by the variation in farm output in low rainfall years. On the other hand, cities are not prepared to handle increased rainfall either, as seen in the case of the Mumbai floods.

Further, a gradual, sustained and irreversible change to sea surface temperatures and acidity are affecting the coastal fishing industries. This is exacerbated by the overfishing in shallow waters near the coast to feed an increasing population.

The most extreme and visible of these climatic events is the increasing frequency and intensity of tropical storms, or cyclones. A single storm can wreak enough havoc to affect hundreds of thousands of lives, businesses and costs the state exchequer hundreds of crores of losses. Their unpredictability makes them hard to plan for, and they equally affect the ecosystems of other species via uprooted trees, flood surges, and heavy rainfall.

What can we do to prepare for this? Nothing.

What we can do is immediately begin to address the underlying issue. As city dwellers, every product we consume – whether we eat it, wear it, or build with it – is manufactured through an industrial process. We are eventually consuming the energy with which every one of these products is made. Our carbon footprint is the sum total of our annual consumption of goods, services and foods.

Like most urban dwellers, your carbon footprint is disproportionately larger than your contribution to human benefit. You are essentially consuming at will, for no other purpose than to have momentary pleasure in yet another pair of shoes, for walking on imported marble or for using plastic windows. We need to actively and urgently address our own consumption patterns to tackle climate change at the global level

Climate change will take decades to reverse from the current path of anthropogenic change. If we begin reducing our energy consumption to save the planet now, perhaps the future generations will look back at us as an era that saved the planetary resources for perpetuity. If not, there may not be any future generations to look back at us at all.

The choice is ours.

(The author is Design Principal, AKDA. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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