Smarter Cities

In India, An Unlikely Model For Climate Change *Resilience*

The city of Surat, in the western Gujarat province of India
The city of Surat, in the western Gujarat province of India
Julien Bouissou

SURAT — It's no longer a question of time. The city of Surat, on the western coast of India, will soon face flooding that could trigger outbreaks of malaria and dengue fever, and rising temperatures that could force companies to relocate their factories. Its 4.5 million residents are already preparing for the disasters triggered by rapid urbanization and global warming.

Surat, with a local economy based on textiles, diamonds and petrochemicals, is one of the first cities to have joined the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network in 2008, which was developed by the Rockefeller Foundation. It benefits from the foundation's technical and financial assistance to identify threats and test solutions. "It's primarily in cities where climate change and poverty are likely to have the most dire consequences,” according to the Rockefeller Foundation.

After the challenges of development and poverty, Indian cities are faced with climate "resilience." India's cities will be at the forefront against climate change, because they will be home to 70% of the country's wealth and a population of 590 million by 2030.

"If urban planners don't consider climate change, it will result in significant economic losses and social damage, especially among the most vulnerable," the Delhi-based Energy and Resources Institute warned at the beginning of this year.

Several advantages could make Surat a resilient city model.

"The municipality is politically stable, and there is a general consensus on climate threats," says Mahesh Rajasekar, director of the consultant company Taru, which is developing the city's climate change resilience model. "The business community is mobilized because they understand better than anyone the losses they could suffer."

Surat has a history of flooding. In 2006, three-quarters of its neighborhoods were under water, which caused hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. It's geographic location at the mouth of the Tapi River, which drains water from a basin that spans 40,000 square miles, is the first factor in its vulnerability.

Surat has seen some of the fastest development in the world, with a near doubling of its population between 2001 and 2011. Rapid urbanization, both upstream and downstream along the Tapi River, raises the risk of flooding by blocking diversions of water.

"Planners don't even have the time to plan anything," says Rajasekar. "The buildings are already up before the administrative boundaries of the city can be expanded.”

Mitigating the inevitable

With a rise in temperatures, monsoon rains will be shorter and more abundant, raising fears of more flooding. Surat has no other choice but to anticipate these floods to at least minimize the damage. Several automated weather stations have been installed further inland to predict the intensity of rainfall and its impact on the Ukai dam, 62 miles upstream from Surat.

"We can control the flow of the dam to prevent it from overflowing, and when it overflows, the flooding in Surat can be modeled, neighborhood by neighborhood, on a microcard," says Mehul Patel, Taru project manager. "It will be possible to predict the extent of flooding from eight hours to four days before the fact."

Jatin S. Shah, the city's chief engineer, says Surat is ready to deal with the flooding. "Those who are able to swim were identified in each district, and boats were stored in fire stations," he says. "If flooded, residents can take refuge on the roofs, or go to their neighbors by jumping from one terrace to another. It's in the days, or even the hours that follow, that the worst is to be feared."

Conditions are ripe for the outbreak of epidemics: The presence of standing water and high temperatures are ideal conditions for mosquitoes, which carry dengue and malaria. Then there is the overcrowded and unsafe housing, as well as the lack of sanitation infrastructure.

"The best way to avoid an epidemic is close monitoring," says Vikas Desai, president of the center for Urban Health and Climate Resilience in Surat, responsible for documenting new epidemics linked to climate change. "What are the affected populations? In what areas? To have access to this information, doctors in the area send us their diagnosed cases daily via SMS."

In addition to disease and flooding, higher temperatures are feared in a region that is already extremely hot in the summer.

"In factories and slums, air conditioning is too expensive," says Kamlesh Yagnik, former director of the Chamber of Commerce in Gujarat. "The heat could make workers flee. The rise in temperature has an impact on productivity." Several solutions are being considered, including painting roofs to reflect sunlight to lower temperatures in the house.

The entire municipal government needs to be rethought to ensure that the city can meet the challenge of climate resilience.

"Communication between all municipal departments will be the key to success," says Desai.

The Surat Climate Change Trust already brings together business leaders, scientists and politicians. A "head of resilience" position will be launched in Surat in September. Municipal authorities can also look to other cities connected through the Rockefeller Foundation, which is expected to have 100 members by the end of the year.

There are four scenarios envisioned for Surat, the most optimistic being a plan for a more dynamic economy and decentralized resource management. In the most pessimistic scenario, the municipality will fail to manage urban boom and the consequences of climate change, resulting in conflicts between communities, increase in crime and the desertion of industries.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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