Lessons from India in building urban resilience

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India’s teeming cities face a myriad problems, such as poor sanitation and drainage, toxic air, a lack of affordable housing, safe water, power outages and sprawling slums. And as Gopalakrishna Bhat sees it, government leaders can’t handle it all on their own.

A trained geologist and urban practitioner, Bhat says making cities safe and sustainable is everyone’s business. In short, the government, the private sector, the civil society and communities including informal sector workers, resident welfare associations and self-help groups must all do their bit.

Bhat is chairman of TARU Leading Edge, a well-known Indian consultancy and think tank that specializes in urban planning and resilience strategies. TARU was a key partner in the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network, a recently completed project that worked in six countries. The group was closely involved in the city of Surat’s push around flood control and building public health capacity — efforts that have made that Indian city an example for building resilience in the developing world.

Bhat and his team have just come out with their latest book, “Road to Resilience: Synergy for Sustainable Cities”, which purports to be a sort of handbook of actions for these four key stakeholders. (A PDF of the book can be downloaded for free here.) I spoke with him recently to find out what lessons it offers for cities. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Patralekha Chatterjee: What led you and your team to write this book? And does it mark an evolution in your thinking since the time you wrote your last book?

Gopalakrishna Bhat: Cities across India are facing a perpetual shortage of water and energy, which gets amplified by summers and droughts.

Read the full book from
TARU Leading Edge

We wrote our first book to enable households and neighbourhoods to manage local resources such as groundwater and local water bodies, and energy, mainly in the form of solar. The idea was to help people improve their lives by individual and neighbourhood-level action. We realized that there are no institutional mechanisms to promote decentralized action to solve these basic challenges.

Thailand was the first country in the developing world to develop a “net metering” policy. Net metering is a billing mechanism that credits solar-energy system owners for the electricity they add to the grid. It is only recently that net metering was allowed in India and rooftop solar energy is now being promoted. Most states adopted it from 2014. Surat is one of the Indian cities that has been actively promoting net metering.

Same is the case of decentralized sewage treatment, recycling and groundwater management. In the absence of these policy measures, citizens have no incentives to adopt disruptive technologies to solve their basic-services problems. Innovations and diffusion of disruptive technologies require the private sector to engage. Examples of household reverse-osmosis filters [for filtering drinking water] and mobile phones show how the private sector can benefit societies and solve problems.

Q: What about civil society?

A: Civil society needs to engage in research and the choice of the right options and development paths. As we face rapid urbanization, we will need to ensure that the communities have multiple options to manage their basic needs, with some autonomy over local resources.

We have experimented with this concept in Surat by forming a formal platform for multi-stakeholder engagement. In 2013, The Surat Climate Change Trust was formally registered, after four years of an informal engagement platform formed under ACCCRN. Since then, it has been engaging in various issues such as the early-warning system against floods and action research on understanding the association between urban services, climate change and urban health. It has members from the municipality, the Water Resources Department, the Gujarat State Disaster Management Agency, Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and industry, academic institutions and civil society representatives.

[See: How Mysuru became India’s ‘cleanest’ city]

Indore has also formed a city-level trust to restore and conserve lakes through active engagement of communities, scientists, civil society and an elected representative of the municipality. The book is based on our action research in Indore and Surat.

Q: What are the key messages of the book?                

A: It is necessary to optimize and conserve local resources to build resilience.

Multi-stakeholder engagement and exploring solutions to problems arising out of unplanned urbanization are necessary to solve challenges of scarcity and climate change.

Q:You write that climate change and urbanization lead to uncertainties and increasing extreme events impacting our lives as evidenced by floods in Surat, Chennai, Srinagar and Kedarnath, and one of the worst droughts of central India in 2015-16. You say we need to anticipate these uncertainties and build resilience. Have cities learned the right lessons in urban development and management strategy?

A: We know now that our natural resources are limited and that climate change is expected to increase the uncertainty in availability of resources such as water. Simultaneously, increasing population and aspirations are amplifying pressure on resources. Getting over the confidence in centralized citywide services is yet to be understood by the city managers and a population. The city administration and the communities have understood the problem, but none of the cities have taken concrete measures to solve these issues.

[See: What Surat learned from a preventable flood]

First steps have been taken by Indore through conservation of urban lakes. Surat city has implemented an early-warning system against emergency discharges from an upstream dam, through two-to-three days in advance information about dam inflows. These require paradigm shift in thinking amongst stakeholders.

Q: Water takes up a major chunk of the book. You talk about reducing water demand and water wastage. Are there any concrete examples of Indian cities that are tackling these issues successfully?

A: The biggest challenges to India’s cities is from water scarcity. While electricity and food can be transported over large distances, it will be a challenge to import water over long distances.

A city of a million population requires about 100 to 150 million litres per day, which is a costly proposition.

Gopalakrishna Bhat

Mumbai’s Drop Dead Foundation, for example, is an initiative taken by a single individual to save water by repairing leaking taps in the neighbourhoods. A leakage of one water drop per second amounts to about 4.3 litres per day, or about 1,560 litres per year — enough to meet about three days of water needs of a household.

Mr. Abid Surti was annoyed by the leaking taps and decided to help others in his neighbourhood to save water by repairing the leaking taps. In the first year of the Foundation’s existence, in 2007, he had visited,1,666 houses on Mira Road, fixed 414 leaking taps free of charge, and saved about 400,000 litres of water. Such efforts are required in water, energy and food sectors to reduce consumption and to promote “waste not-want not” in the coming age of uncertainties.

Q: From your practical experience, what lessons have you learned about creating energy security in the urban context. Any examples?

A: About 80 percent of the world’s energy demand is now met by fossil fuels. With the option for decentralization of energy generation, households can become “prosumers” — consumers who are also producers. With net metering, coming disruption in cheaper storage systems such as Tesla’s Powerwall and beyond, the energy sector is going to transform significantly.

With increasing concern of global warming and climate change, carbon-neutral cities are required now more than ever. Surat city has taken initiatives to promote rooftop solar energy systems. We do not have many options except transforming to prosumer models of decentralized energy systems. Resilience can only be achieved by multiple solutions.

Q: You also talk about environmental health. Could you share one or two examples where Indian cities are taking a lead in this?

A: We are facing multiple challenges of urban health, including poor quality of water, mixing of wastes with water-supply systems, reduced walking, air pollution and urban heat islands. Poor quality of air and water result in deterioration of urban health.

We are currently dealing with the symptoms rather than root causes of deteriorating urban health. The book tries to address some of the issues related with environmental health, for interventions across multiple scales, sectors and stakeholders. The book tries to explore synergistic options through integrating action by for groups of stakeholders.

[See: How Surat became India’s public health leader — and stayed that way]

Surat city had been facing many other health challenges including malaria, filaria and plague. After the last plague incident, the city took several measures including widening the narrow streets to enable free movement of solid waste collection vehicles, cleaning up the whole city and setting up a disease-surveillance system.

The ACCCRN improved the disease-surveillance system so that health data can be analyzed on the same day, so that remedial actions can be taken before a few cases of diseases cascade into an epidemic. Extensive use of near real-time data collection systems was computerized to enable quick decision making.

Even after recurring epidemics, other cities have not yet adopted these systems, as is the case of the flood early-warning system. It is hoped that other cities will develop context-specific solutions to the recurrent challenges in water, energy, food and environmental health systems.

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Patralekha Chatterjee is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Delhi. She is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written extensively on Asian cities. Full bio

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