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.