Why are Indian cities becoming victims of climate change?

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

India being one of the most vulnerable countries to global warming, is expected to face the brunt of climate change like never before in the next few years. Timely, stringent measures to combat it is the need of the hour.


A landmark study released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights the adverse impacts of global warming. This report points out that agricultural economies like India are bound to suffer the most due to rising temperatures. Some of these effects include extreme weather conditions, floods, droughts and other disasters, water stress, and reduced food production, which not only have the potential to threaten food security but also livelihoods.

Another report titled, Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian Region, forecasts an increase in average temperature by almost 4.4°C, by the end of the 21st century. Some of the main reasons for this is the increased emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are human activities like burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas for electricity, heat and transportation), agriculture and land clearing.

A recent IPCC report (August 2021) provides new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5°C in the next decades (Image credit: IPCC Twitter)

Saurav Chowdhury, an infrastructure planner and a climate change expert, based in New Delhi, elaborates on this. “Nearly 44 percent of India's growing GHG emissions originate in urban areas, leading to the formation of heat islands, frequent water shortages, and many other disasters”, says Chowdhury.

Chandra Bhushan, CEO, International Forum for Environment Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST), explains that Indian cities face the wrath of climate either due to hydrological (water-related) or heat related issues.

When it comes to the hydrological impact, Bhushan adds, “Due to extreme rainfall, Indian cities get inundated and are often not in a position to cope with it. On the other hand, droughts have also become more frequent, and will be an even bigger challenge in the near future.”

The occurrence of the Urban Heat Island effect (when the urban area is a few degrees warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities) is detrimental to people living in cities.

In the Urban Heat Island effect, the urban area is a few degrees warmer than the surrounding rural areas. Also, the temperature varies with land-use (Image credit: Climate Central)

Bhushan adds, “In addition to the heat island effect, bad urban planning and poorly ventilated buildings is bound to make urban areas extremely warm in the near future, so much so that people will be unable to work outdoors during certain times of the year.”

Bhushan visualizes a vicious cycle here. “Heat waves lead to a significant increase in energy consumption (higher usage of air-conditioning), which is responsible for more emission of GHGs, and eventually a huge heat wave”, quips Bhushan.

Metropolitan cities are the hotspots

Almost all cities are experiencing the impact of climate change, both in India and abroad. Recently, there were instances of Berlin getting flooded and cities in Canada, which are known to be quite chilly, dealing with heat waves.

The Berlin floods in July 2021 (Image credit: Daily Sabah)

“Some of the most impacted cities due to urban floods have been - Mumbai in 2005, Surat in 2006, Kolkata in 2007, Chennai 2017, Kerala in 2018-19 and Hyderabad in 2020, with cities like Guwahati facing the wrath of urban floods every year worsened by the flooding of river Brahmaputra”, says Chowdhury.

A 2019 study by New Jersey-based Climate Central found that projected sea levels are high enough to wipe out coastal cities like Mumbai and Kolkata by 2050. Presently, these cities are at a massive risk of inundation and erosion, and are extremely vulnerable to sea-level rise and coastal flooding in the future.

The scenario in terms of heat-related impacts of climate change is also grim. A 2018 Urban Climate Change Research Network (UCCRN) report discusses the vulnerability of major Indian cities to extreme heat conditions. As per this report, within a few years, a larger share of the population living in the cities of Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Jaipur and Kolkata would be regularly exposed to extreme high temperatures.

How proper urban planning can help

While it may be easy to blame climate change for the repercussions we are experiencing today, it is definitely not the only factor. Growing urbanization and improper urban planning are also a few of the contributors.

Bhushan elucidates that cities do not need to be 100 percent concretized. He says, “Recently (September 2021), after the storm Ida hit New York City, Central Park was flooded. The extremely high concretisation when compared to the green spaces (only one major prominent green space, Central Park, in terms of area), was a prime reason for the disaster in the city.”

Thus, the only way ahead is to ensure balanced development, and understand the natural world in which cities are created.

With reference to the urbanisation context, Bhushan explains that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model does not work.

He says, “We have been following the European model of riverfront development. Concretization of the river banks in cities like Paris and Berlin, are being replicated in India, an important example being Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad. The riverfronts create large concretized areas, with very few green spaces, and also impede the flow of the river water.”

The highly concretized riverfronts in India are replicated from the European models of riverfront development (Image credit: Gujarat Tourism)

What ULBs can do

Cities are known to be the primary drivers of economic growth and prosperity. But, they are also major contributors to GHG emissions (carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, methane). Hence, it is important to support them to achieve low-carbon, climate-resilient living spaces. This can be done by integrating climate solutions into local development plans, for a sustainable future.

“If Urban local bodies (ULBs) facilitate climate-action planning by implementing various initiatives which possess high climate co-benefits (positive benefits related to the reduction of greenhouse gases), then, there is nothing like it. Climate-proofing (process of mainstreaming climate change into mitigation and/or adaptation strategies and programmes) existing and future infrastructure in order to protect people from climate risks and hazards is also an effective measure”, says Chowdhury.

Role of citizens

Climate emergencies occur not only due to poor planning and execution by civic authorities. There are other reasons behind it too.

“Citizens are also answerable for it. Often, illegal constructions and encroachments which go against nature are led by citizens”, notes Bhushan.

Hence, it is imperative to ensure citizens are made aware of the implications of their bad decisions.

Highlighting civic duties and responsibilities, Chowdhury believes that each individual should claim a personal responsibility, towards doing their bit for the planet.

Chowdhury says, “The citizens should play their role in reducing GHG emissions by opting for more sustainable choices in terms of energy consumption, mobility and waste management along with judicious usage of natural resources.”

The way ahead - good development towards tackling climate change impacts?

In order to tackle the anomalies caused due to climate change, a strong planning process is needed. Decentralised urban planning is one of the paths that can be taken.

Bhushan says, “We have to expand existing cities and also build new ones. While doing so, we need to be mindful of the natural environment, water bodies and green spaces are needed. In addition, reconstructing existing cities to adapt to climate change should be undertaken and given priority.”

From a general planning perspective, most of the climate actions in cities across the world are defined by stand-alone initiatives in water security, waste management, energy efficiency, shift to renewable energy, and sustainable mobility. Therefore, a holistic approach for climate-smart planning would be necessary for informed, collective and collaborative local climate action involving multiple city-level stakeholders.


Edited by Roshni Shroff


Some resources and links to help you learn more about climate change:

Climate change is making India less livable

Protect India’s forests and urban green spaces, says India’s climate change report

IPCC Special Report: Climate risks require India to rethink its approach