Ear to the ground

Gujarat is battered by heat waves, floods, drought. How are its cities coping?

Rising climate variability is adding to the state’s environmental vulnerabilities.

What does the climate map of Gujarat currently look like?

Southern parts of the state get fewer days of rainfall now. In Surat, for instance, locals say that rainfall patterns over the city began changing about 15 years ago, with the city getting fewer days of rain each year. However, the rainfall is more intense, so Surat floods more often.

In Ahmedabad, 270 km to the north, the mercury topped 50 degrees Celsius last year – the previous high was 47.8 degrees Celsius over 100 years ago, in 1916. Another 150 km to the north lies Banaskantha, a normally arid region. Here, heavy rains caused flooding this year. To the south-west, in arid Saurashtra, farmers and scientists talk about delayed monsoons, increasingly torrential downpours and increased flooding.

There is little that is surprising here. Across India, climate variability is disrupting the structures of everyday life. In 2015, changing mid-latitude westerlies triggered a whitefly infestation that ruined Punjab’s cotton crop. In Tamil Nadu, rising sea temperatures have affected the fish catch. Inland, towards the town of Sivagangai, a weakening South-West monsoon has contributed to a drop in farm earnings and rising indebtedness. In Bihar, scientists in the agriculture university outside Bhagalpur say that crop yields are falling as heat waves increase in frequency.

The first five states Scroll.in’s Ear To The Ground project reported from – Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Bihar – were not doing much to adapt to, or mitigate the effects of, such climatic changes.

What about Gujarat?

A person trapped on the terrace of a building surrounded by floodwater is rescued by the Indian Air Force in Utadi village in Gujarat's Surendranagar district in July 2017. (Photo credit: PTI).
A person trapped on the terrace of a building surrounded by floodwater is rescued by the Indian Air Force in Utadi village in Gujarat's Surendranagar district in July 2017. (Photo credit: PTI).

Environmental vulnerabilities

Till the early 2000s, Gujarat had a very different sense of its environmental vulnerabilities.

In 1998, a super cyclone had ripped through the port city of Kandla. Three years later, a quake reduced Bhuj to rubble. In response, Gujarat conducted a hazard and vulnerability analysis.

GK Bhat, the founder of Taru, an environmental consultancy based in Ahmedabad, said that the major environmental risks the study flagged were drought, flood, cyclone and earthquakes. Of these, the greatest exposure was to drought, he said.

Since then, Gujarat has tried hard to drought-proof itself. Apart from building check dams to boost groundwater levels, it kicked off two large water management programmes – both feeding off the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The first was Sujlam Suflam – a canal that moves surplus Narmada waters (what is left during the monsoons after statutory allocations to all states) to North Gujarat. This canal was left unlined hoping it would recharge groundwater levels along its route. The second was Sauni Yojana – a network of pipelines that takes Narmada water to Saurashtra.

But now, rising climate variability is adding to the state’s environmental vulnerabilities.

Gujarat claims to have taken climate variability more seriously than other states. As Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi wrote a book on climate change. Gujarat was the first state in India to set up a department for climate change. Its cities are developing plans that seek to adapt or mitigate the worst fallout of climatic stress. While Ahmedabad has a roadmap to handle heat waves, Surat has a similar blueprint to tackle floods.

How far do the state’s efforts help Gujarat adapt to – and mitigate – the fallouts of a changing climate? Scroll.in’s Ear To The Ground project decided to take a closer look. Given that Gujarat is one of India’s most urbanised states, we studied urban planning to see how well adaptation and mitigation are being mainstreamed into the planning and implementation processes in the state.

But first, how exactly does climate variability affect cities?

A farmer removes dried plants from his parched paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in 2015. (Photo credit: Amit Dave/Reuters).
A farmer removes dried plants from his parched paddy field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in 2015. (Photo credit: Amit Dave/Reuters).

Cities and climate trends

Climate variability affects cities in two ways essentially. The first is in the form of extreme weather like heavy rain or floods. And the second, in slower, subtler ways, like gradual increases in temperature or an increase in the sea level.

Think of the first as a shock. The second, as a stress. Gujarat is seeing both. Its cities saw heavy downpours during the 2017 monsoon. At the same time, temperature patterns are changing, said Saswat Bandopadhyay, faculty member in the department of planning at Ahmedabad’s CEPT University. In Ahmedabad, for instance, the difference between daytime and night-time temperature has reduced. “At one time, even if the mercury went up to 45 degrees Celsius, nights were pleasant and temperatures came down to [between] 25 degrees Celsius and 26 degrees Celsius,” he said. But now, he added, “They come down just half as much – to [between] 32 degrees Celsius and 34 degrees Celsius.”

Solar water heaters on a rooftop in Rajkot.
Solar water heaters on a rooftop in Rajkot.

Shocks and stresses come with different challenges for a city.

The first comes with cascading fallouts, said Bhat. He cited the example of especially heavy rainfall. Its first fallout is not flooding but traffic jams, he said. During these events, cities start shutting down. “Cities depend on networks – a flow of milk, a flow of food, cash for ATMs,” said Bhat. “As one urban system fails, it incapacitates the others. And cities see a progressive network failure.”

Bhat drew an analogy with a living system. “These [urban failures] are not independent failures,” he said. “But multi-organ failure. Every failing organ incapacitates the rest – reaching social unrest and epidemics in its higher reaches.”

Rising temperatures, on the other hand, trigger a spiral. For instance, when night brings no relief from high temperatures, as in Ahmedabad, many people cannot sleep without the use of air-conditioners. But these expel hot air, which heats the city up further.

How do urban planners respond to such challenges? One part of the response lies in zoning. Bandopadhyay said each city needs natural spaces that absorb environmental shocks. If a city is vulnerable to floods, it needs to create spaces where the water can collect and get absorbed. If high temperatures are a problem, ensuring sufficient green cover is one way to cool the city down.

He referred to the climate mitigation efforts of Parramatta, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. “They created a very detailed assessment of surface temperatures and then looked at the level of surface greening needed to manage that,” he said.

He added that its planners also asked other questions, like the building material that should be used in the region. “They modelled wind patterns because city layouts [like tall buildings] would influence those.”

So far, urban India has not done much to mitigate the effects of climate variability. Instead of using building materials suitable for our climate, a lot of modern construction in India relies on inappropriate construction materials. Several malls and office buildings, for instance, are clad in glass panels, which absorb heat and drive up cooling costs.

Similarly, most Indian cities have a low tree cover and more hard surfaces. “Most of our plots are concretised to maximise built-up space,” said Bandopadhyay. “The land outside is also paved over and tarred. There is very little open area for water absorption.”

The fallout? As Bengaluru found recently, even after heavy rains, there is little groundwater recharge. At the same time, lakes, which recharge groundwater, are being killed through real estate development. Little thought is given to water supply. When water scarcities loom, urban areas source water from increasingly lenghty distances. Government efforts often ignore the poor, forcing them into private water markets.

In peri-urban areas, something else is awry. Take any city, said Bhat, and you will find that the panchayat president has given permission for even five-to-seven-storey buildings to be constructed in villages that fall outside municipal boundaries. “When the municipal corporation expands its limits, it finds these strange places where buildings are standing – but there are no roads, water supply or sewage,” he said. “The whole place works only on groundwater.”

As climate change becomes a reality, all this needs to change.

Women carry drinking water at Tilakwada village at Kevadia Colony in Narmada district of Gujarat. (Photo credit: AFP/Sam Panthaky).
Women carry drinking water at Tilakwada village at Kevadia Colony in Narmada district of Gujarat. (Photo credit: AFP/Sam Panthaky).

Rajkot’s response

To understand how Gujarat is factoring changing climate trends into urban planning, this correspondent visited Rajkot.

Rajkot, the fourth-biggest city in Gujarat after Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat, is located close to the centre of Saurashtra. The city is urbanising rapidly as people, drawn by both its industrial and service economy as well as Gujarat’s weakening rural economy, flock here. It is also a water-scarce city. Its second revised draft development plan (2031) says: “[Rajkot Municipal Corporation] is able to supply only 20 minutes of water daily as against the benchmark of 24 hours.”

A closer look at the city’s work on preparing for climate change shows a mixed picture.

On some fronts, Rajkot is doing well. To make the city more energy-efficient, Rajkot’s Municipal Corporation has made solar heaters mandatory. Rainwater harvesting is mandatory too. These efforts, however, are undercut by other decisions. As it expands, Rajkot is leaving very little room for environmental sinks like green zones. As a city grows, it should leave about 30% of its surface area for green zones and environmental sinks, said Mahesh Rajasekar, a former environmental consultant with Taru. “What holds true for a nation also holds true at a smaller, ward level.”

But Rajkot’s old city has a green cover of about 2%, and its periphery does not fare any better.

A town planner who has worked in both the Rajkot Municipal Corporation and the Rajkot Urban Development Authority, who did not want to be identified, explained why this was the case. He said that as a planner, he can take 30% to 40% of a land-owner’s land for a public purpose. “Half of that will go into roads,” he said. “Some more will go into civic infrastructure. The rest goes into parks and gardens. You will not have as much green zone as desired.”

Or take water. Rajkot currently needs about 270 million litres of water every day. Of this, it gets about 125 million litres from local reservoirs and it draws about 155 million litres to 165 million litres from the Narmada. “Our total supply is 300 MLD [million litres a day],” said senior municipal corporation official. “What we use is 270 MLD. We have a small buffer.”

That will change with the city’s expansion. By 2031, the town’s water demand will be 400 million litres a day, he said. Where will this water come from?

“Ask about water supply and officials say they will get it from the Narmada,” said Bandopadhyay. But that is easier said than done. The water from the Sauni network of pipelines comes with its own uncertainties.

Said the municipal official: “I have full reliability from my local reservoirs. But Sauni will not be 100% reliable. Like us, all corporations are planning till 2045. and making their own [water] drawal plans.”

That is not all. Water from the Sauni project is expensive. “The cost of my water from Aji and Nyari [rivers] is Rs 2 to Rs 3 per kilolitre,” said the municipal corporation official. “The cost of the water from the Sauni [project] is Rs 12 to Rs 15 [per kilolitre].”

The water from the Sauni is so expensive due to the cost of energy used to transport it. It has to be pumped uphill from near sea level – where the Narmada reservoir is – to Saurashtra whose topography is like an inverted bowl.

There is the option of seawater. But desalination is even costlier. And so, the corporation is focusing on water recycling and reuse. But there is a problem even there – the lack of funds. To expand water coverage, the municipal corporation needs Rs 1,761 crores. But it does not have the money for this.

“Octroi was abolished in 2005,” said the municipal corporation official explaining how the corporation’s financial condition has weakened. “In 2007, property tax was done away with.” He said that some of the corporation’s losses were recouped due to the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission but the advantage of octroi and property tax was their untied nature. “Every city could choose how to use that money,” he said. “In contrast, these grants are tied funds.”

To make up the shortfall in revenue, the corporation is now applying for grants like the Centre’s Smart City programme and Amrut (the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission in a new avatar). But these grants are limited and come with caveats.

Said the municipal officer: “What we got from Amrut is Rs 293 crores. From Smart City, Rs 250 crores. Also, this money is only for capital expenses. How do I pay for operations and maintenance?”

These are puzzling contradictions. If Rajkot was not serious about fighting climate variability, it would not have taken the steps it did. At the same time, if it is alive to the risk of a changing climate, why is it not creating sustainable cities?

The answer may lie in analysing how Gujarat’s Urban Development Authorities function.

This is the first part of a two-part series.

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