Budget push for infra should make Indian cities resilient to climate change

In her budget speech, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman asked ‘to nurture megacities and their hinterlands so that they become current centres of economic growth’

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Climate Change | Budget 2022 | India’s infrastructure

In May 2021, when Cyclone Yaas hit the eastern coast of India, a hospital in Bihar’s capital Patna was inundated in the floods and patients had nowhere to go. In September 2021, parts of the national capital, Delhi, were waterlogged because of heavy rains and residents in some areas had to wade through knee-deep water to commute.

These incidents lay bare the vulnerability of India’s critical infrastructure, including hospitals, roads, bridges and water treatment systems, to extreme weather events in a warming world. And as budget 2022-23 puts a renewed focus on infrastructure, experts say it must be ‘climate-proof’ and hazard-proof.

In her budget speech, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman asked “to nurture megacities and their hinterlands so that they become current centres of economic growth”. The government also proposed to earmark Rs 1 lakh crore in interest-free loans for states, some of which they would use for developing infrastructure and for town planning. The budget also proposed expanding national highways by 25,000 km under the PM GatiShakti plan.

Climate proofing requires infrastructure to be designed, planned and built keeping in mind the environmental alterations that will take place due to climate change. For instance, building roads with wider drainage channels for flood-prone regions and/or laying roads on flatter slopes to avoid landslides.

“Over 75% of India’s districts are extreme climate hotspots, 27 out of 35 of the states and union territories are extremely vulnerable to climate change,” Abinash Mohanty, programme lead at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a Delhi-based think-tank, told IndiaSpend. “So while you are pushing this hard, you are always kind of exposing your infrastructure as well as your investment and, therefore, job growth and sustainability to extreme events. Imagine a bridge that is critical in evacuating people is itself inundated or broken, or completely cut off because of flood.”

While building new climate-proofed infrastructure is expensive, it may be relatively inexpensive compared to rebuilding infrastructure after they have been destroyed, or retrofitting them at a future date, Indu Murthy, sector head of climate, environment and sustainability at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), a Bengaluru-based think-tank, told IndiaSpend.

We wrote to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs on their plans to climate-proof urban infrastructure. We will update the story when we receive their response.

Why it is important to climate-proof infrastructure

India has over 50 cities with a population above 1 million, and nearly 500 cities with a population above 100,000. The National Commission on Population in India predicts that in the next 15 years (by 2036), about 38.6% of Indians (600 million) will live in urban areas. Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai–some of India’s largest cities–are all low-lying coastal cities.

India has already suffered infrastructural losses and damage of more than Rs 2.7 lakh crore ($37 billion) in 2018 due to extreme climate events–nearly as much as its defence budget in 2018, found the 15th edition of the Global Climate Risk Index 2020 prepared by Bonn-based think-tank Germanwatch. In the last two decades, India’s lack of disaster preparedness amounted to a loss of Rs 13.14 lakh crore ($180 billion), a 2021 CEEW study stated.

“While we are thinking big time about infrastructure, investments and economic aspirations,” said Mohanty, we should not let down our guard and exclude the potential impacts of climate risks.

“Having climate-resilient infrastructure is an insurance against climate extremities,” said Murthy. “In infrastructure you are locking investments, so if you are not cognisant of the level of change/ climate hazards likely to be there in the future, it’s quite possible that the infrastructure could be damaged or its lifetime reduced because of exposure to more climate hazards.”

What would climate-proofing of infrastructure mean?

Climate-resilient infrastructure can adapt to and withstand the long-term changes in climate patterns, continue to operate under the immediate shocks from extreme weather events or restore function after an interruption resulting from climate hazards.

Since 2010, Indore has assessed exposure to climate risks to develop a resilience strategy, including awareness raising and engagement with communities living in informal settlements, who are particularly vulnerable to climate risks, to identify and manage these risks. This was used to inform the development of the Indore City Resilience Strategy.

For instance, the Indore municipal corporation is taking a more active role in linking urban water management with climate adaptation, and thus adequate storm water drainage has become a priority for new road development. Also, conserving green spaces and promoting grey water reutilisation and treatment programmes are featured in the revisions of the City Development Plan after 2014.

Investment in climate-resilient infrastructure can fetch benefits worth more than $4.2 trillion (Rs 316 lakh crore) in low- and middle-income countries, as per a 2019 report from the World Bank.

With the increasing intensity and frequency of cyclones on India’s west coast, there has been a need for adequate disaster mitigation infrastructure like shelters, all-weather roads and embankments. However, states have been slow in installing this critical infrastructure, IndiaSpend reported in May 2021.

Some cities, like Mumbai and Nagpur, have also come up with city climate action plans to mainstream climate action in the city’s development plan. But, there is no policy mandate for cities to come up with their own action plans, said Mohanty. “And none of the national action plan, state action plan on climate change or the disaster management plans actually include a lot on the climate-proofing of infrastructure.”

Green infrastructure for climate-proofing

Green infrastructure can mitigate climate change impacts in cities, such as heat stress. Green infrastructure includes ecosystems such as mangroves, wetlands, forests, and coral reefs that act as natural shock absorbers that cushion the impacts of extreme climate events and promote community resilience. For instance, in coastal cities, planting mangroves along the coasts act as a good sand binder and can keep a check on saltwater degrading the quality of groundwater because of increased rainfall, flooding, etc.

Further, “‘nature-based solutions’ can help address many of today’s most pressing water challenges, particularly if planned in harmony with ‘built’ infrastructure,” a high-level panel on water convened by the United Nations and the World Bank concluded in 2018.

“It is high time that these natural ecosystems are treated as critical infrastructures and adequate investments are made towards their restoration and rejuvenation,” said Mohanty.

When you push for such nature-based solutions, there are multiple benefits involved, including creating jobs in the process, said Murthy. “For instance, vertical gardens may not sequester as much carbon as a standing forest or a patch of trees like a park. But, it would reduce demand for thermal cooling, likely to be higher due to a warmer future.”

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