Cities must focus on disaster-resilient infrastructure in the age of climate change

Mysore Road metro station and Nayandahalli flyover at night. Photo: Pragathi Ravi

“Currently, disaster management departments at district or city level are mainly concerned with rescue and recovery, rather than resilience and preparedness, which is what they need to focus on,” says Jaya Dhindaw, director of the Integrated Urban Development, Planning and Resilience Program at World Resources Institute, India.

Master plans for the city are designed for longer durations, but cities grow at a much faster rate compared to these planning processes, the researchers say. “The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) doesn’t have the agency to make plans for cities,” says Garima Jain, Gilbert White Fellow at Arizona State University, who works closely with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. “We need stronger district or local area plans so that local level action can be taken more quickly when disaster strikes.”

In a previous article, we saw what decentralized disaster management should look like and what it actually looks like with the municipality leading the management of rescue and relief operations following the recent floods in Bangalore. While the existing systems and processes did not present an optimistic picture. In this article, we explore what infrastructure designed to mitigate the effects of disasters looks like and whether disaster management has a place in India’s urban planning mandates.

To bridge this gap between disaster planning and management, NDMA must have a say in how cities are developed. “Building regulations are still limited to a few hazards such as earthquakes, but not others such as cyclones, drought and floods, which in many cities constitute the bulk of hazards,” declare researchers.

Disaster response teams assist residents of flooded locality in Bangalore
State disaster response teams are helping seniors stuck in flooded areas. Photo: NDRF/Twitter

However, some cities are beginning to integrate them into their planning or governance mechanisms. Surat, says Garima, has managed to limit its urban development to specific areas and has built a kind of flood resistance. “The city set up committees and saw bodies like the water department, waste disposal agencies and the private sector come together after the 2006 floods,” she says.

In Kochi, after back-to-back flooding, state and city agencies were mobilized to shift from rescue and recovery to resilience and preparedness, Jaya adds.

Read more: Disaster management in Bengaluru: temporary fixes touted as solutions as city floods again

Disaster resilient infrastructure

A 2021 report by the National Institute for Disaster Management (NIDM) recognizes regional airports as “crucial links for humanitarian operations, providing access to search and rescue teams, medical response teams and relief supplies”. Assessing the vulnerability and dangers posed to airports, Chiranjit Barthakur of Bangalore International Airport Ltd. mentioned that airports should be earthquake resistant and should be planned to accommodate the rainfall scenario for 100 years.

However, disaster-resilient infrastructure has only been considered since 2019. “This is the year when the smart city assessment arrived and thought was given to urban planning that was sensitive and resilient to climate change”, says WRI’s Jaya. “That’s when cities started developing climate action plans.”

After the BBMP engaged to the legally binding Paris Agreement in 2021, the then BBMP commissioner mentioned that the city would start drafting and implementing a climate action plan. The plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gases and develop strategies for adapting to climate change, will be ready by the end of this year.

One of the targets listed in the draft Karnataka Action Plan for Climate Change and Human Health (KSAPCCHH) is for the state to work toward developing district-level climate action plans. This includes a list of long-term deliverables (five to 15 years) of climate-proof communities and infrastructure.

Bayapanahalli Metro Station
Macro-level infrastructure must be planned to withstand disasters. file picture

While the dialogue to foster climate-responsive urban planning has started, it is up to cities to implement it on time. An example of how disaster-resilient infrastructure would work during a crisis, as Jaya explains, is to have sponge surfaces around stations. “During the floods in Mumbai, the trains stop. If there were sponge surfaces around the stations where flood waters could seep through, then the trains could be accessible even in the event of flooding.” Macro-level infrastructure like trains and subways should be built with this in mind.

At the micro scale

While local urban bodies or planning agencies can deploy efforts at the city level, individuals can also make changes at the micro level to build infrastructure resilience. “You can make their buildings climate-proof so they don’t get flooded or suffer from heat,” says Jaya, who thinks it may come from changes in building control regulations at the neighborhood level.

To fight against the heat, the association Hasiru Dala’s Hasiru mane aims to provide climate proof homes for waste pickers in Bangalore. The pilot project built 25 houses for residents of informal settlements to enable their adaptation to climate change and to focus on thermal comfort.

Citizens with vacant land can plant trees to increase porosity so that in the event of flooding, water can infiltrate. how nature-based solutions can be harnessed to mitigate disaster risk.

Such solutions, adds Garima, will also bring local-level commitments on what citizens can collectively do locally and define short- and long-term visions.

The two researchers insisted on not dismissing the recent floods as a mere climatic calamity, but as the result of poor urban planning. “The climate is changing, but the climate is not the only culprit here,” says Garima. “The blame lies with the poor planning processes that create such dangerous cases.”

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