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Impact of Climate change on Urban Areas in India

Centre for Education and Documentation

08 / 2010

India has the 2nd largest urban system in the world, with 310 million people in over 5161 cities as of 2005. Although presently the 5100 urban centres hold less than 30% of the total Indian population, this figure is expected to rise to 40% by 2030 in an estimated 70,000 urban settlements, as urban population is likely to grow by 575 millions over the next 50 years. By 2025, 70 Indian cities are expected to have more than 1 million inhabitants.

The Urban Footprint

With 70% of the population living in rural areas, India’s carbon contribution is much lower than other developed countries as the energy consumed by a rural economy in terms of heat, lighting, and transport is much lower than the urban areas. But this will dramatically change in the next decades with the urban population increasing.

Cities are far more dependent on energy than rural areas where activities like agriculture, animal husbandry and local artisanal work have a low ecological footprint. As population in cities grows, pressure on ecosystems increases. Large quantities of food, water and fuel need to be moved into the cities and huge amounts of garbage and sewage have to be moved out. Nutrient-rich human wastes – an asset in a rural setting can become an economic liability in an urban environment.

Aquifers and wetlands, farmlands and forests are all as essential to a city’s survival as much as transport networks. Water, at once the most vital and most abused urban resource, best illustrates the precarious relationship that now exists between cities and the natural system. Many cities’ water comes from overextended or contaminated aquifers. Aurangabad (in Maharashtra) for example gets it from 118 km away, a journey that involves enormous energy expenditures (1).

However, a vast majority of core investment by cities does not include climate measures. Most cities today continue to construct energy-hogging infrastructure, build roads without transit and pedestrian considerations, plan development that creates long commutes, dispose of waste without utilizing it as a power source, and ignore distributed generation and renewable energy options. When they make these oversights, they constrain themselves to a future of wasted energy and high GHG emissions for decades to come. The reasons these opportunities are missed are mostly due to lack of awareness, technical know how and support.

Direct impact of climate change in urban areas

Sea level rise

One of the alarming prospects of climate change will be its impact on the rise in sea level. Mainland India, endowed with a long coastline of 5,700 km will not escape the wrath of the seas. The total length of the Indian coastline is about 7,500 km when all the island territories of Andaman and Nicobar, and Lakshadweep are taken into account.

Low Elevation Coastal Zones (LECZ) are regions, which fall under 10 meters of coastal elevation. Approximately 81,000 square km of land fall under LECZ in India, housing a population of over 60 million. 50% of this population is in urban regions comprising approximately 31 million people.

According to Aggarwal and Lal, it is projected that the sea-level rise along the Indian coast will be between 30 and 80 cm over the next century. In the absence of any preventive measures, the people living in coastal areas are potentially going to be affected. Three major cities Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai are on the coast and are on an average elevation of 2-10 meters in the LECZ. They are likely to suffer from flooding of lands particularly during high tide, salinization of water sources, destruction of ecosystems and natural resources that supply them. Cities in deltaic locations like Kolkata are more likely to be affected by coastal floods as they are at lower elevation, experience more or less natural subsidence and, in some cases, receive more water from the rivers feeding melting glaciers.


Changes in precipitation patterns and water cycle will increase the already existing problems of water supply and quality in urban areas, especially in big cities. The IPCC Report underlines those cities in drier regions like Delhi will be hit hard.


Climate change is expected to increase environment-related diseases. Warmer and/or wetter period of breeding due to global warming will provide ideal conditions for expansion of mosquito-borne diseases as puddles, in which malaria carrying mosquitoes breed, are created either by excessive rainfall or by droughts in rivers.

Lack of sanitation and potable water will increase contaminated water and food-borne diseases like cholera, typhoid, diarrhoea, hepatitis, and gastroenteritis. Warmer cities will also induce an increase in respiratory diseases due to pollution whose effects are reinforced by higher temperatures.

Poor people may suffer more as they have lesser possibilities to adapt. As stated by UNFPA, “poor areas that lack health and other services, combined with crowded living conditions, poor water supply and inadequate sanitation, are ideal for spreading respiratory and intestinal conditions, and for breeding mosquitoes and other vectors of tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue, typhoid and yellow fevers. Changes in temperature and precipitation can spread disease in previously unaffected areas and encourage it in areas already affected.” (2)

Heat waves

Global warming will be felt more in cities because of the “urban heat island effect” that makes cities warmer than their surrounding from 2 to 6oC because of the modification of the land surface and waste heat produced by high-energy use. Heat waves that can kill hundreds of people may become more frequent and intense.


Storms, floods, cyclones, coastal flooding that are expected to be more frequent put infrastructure at great risk. This includes transportation (roads, railways, bridges, ports and airports) and communication networks, water supply, sewage, gas pipelines, drainage, flood and coastal defence systems, power and telecommunication infrastructures, industrial units, plants. As far as buildings are concerned, informal and traditional housing are the most vulnerable to storms and floods.

Indirect impact of climate change on urban areas


Climate change related drought and floods are expected to foster rural to urban migration, increase overpopulation of cities and the proportion of poor and vulnerable people living in urban areas. It is estimated that 500 million people are going to be affected by water problems in India because of global warming (major risk of desertification in North-Western and Central India, alternance of droughts and floods in the Indo-Gangetic and Brahmaputra plains, and coastal flogging due to sea-level rise).

The migrants are the most vulnerable groups in any city. With no access to the city’s livelihood network and a lack of skill sets to help them survive, these groups live in the slums which are illegal and that have no access to basic amenities. These groups are thus highly vulnerable to a variety of risks living on hazardous sites, environmental health risks via poor sanitation, water supply, little or no drainage and solid waste services, air and water pollution and the recurrent threat of being evicted (3).

Economic impacts

Cities form the center of the economy in many countries, so climate change’s impact on urban populations also damages the nation. For every one-meter rise in sea levels, the World Bank estimates a loss of 2% in national Gross Domestic Product due to shortage of fresh water, damage to agriculture and fisheries, disruption of tourism, reduced energy security, and other consequences (4).

Health consequences of climate change especially, heat waves, could have a great impact on economy. Episodes of heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke would affect the population, primarily the large poor section of the society. As the immune system weakens due to heat stress, susceptibility to diseases would further increase. The resulting increase in expenses on health care by individuals would escalate leading to greater stress. Hence, this vicious cycle would lead to depreciation of human resources. As temperatures increase, the workable days for heavy works like construction will decrease and this may have a negative impact on economic growth.

Climate change through more frequent and intense drought or floods is already severely affecting the agricultural sector and food production. One of the side effects of this rural and agricultural crisis is increase in food and biomass fuel prices in cities.


Retroactive impact of urbanization

As Darryl D’Monte puts it, “three-quarters of the carbon dioxide in the world, which is the biggest greenhouse gas, is emitted by cities. One has only to remember that half the population of the globe is urban today. Half this carbon dioxide is contributed by buildings, which need to heat or cool their interiors; the rest is generated by motorized transport, which is growing exponentially in our country. This […] locates the problem squarely in our midst, as urban-dwellers. As is painfully evident from city after city in our country, urban development here is highly unsustainable.”

According to Bittu Sahgal, Editor of the magazine Sanctuary Asia, Mumbai itself is responsible for 40% of pollution in India. Part of these emissions is linked to measures like air conditioning taken to adapt to climate change which itself is mostly the consequence of GHG emissions.

This phenomenon is further emphasized by the move towards high-energy consuming buildings for middle and business-class. Because of globalization and adoption of new technologies, traditional patterns of construction are abandoned for homogenized types of building that largely use cement and glass, air conditioning regardless of the environmental and climatic conditions.

For example, in Pune, constructors’ choices depend more on consumer trends and commercial considerations than ecological considerations. There, glass and concrete, which trap the heat, are used more often now than bricks and stone which are much more energy efficient (5).


The poors and the vulnerable people

Climate change will affect more the poor people who constitute between a quarter and half of Indian cites. The slum dwellers, squatters, migrants, people living in informal settlements which are generally situated in vulnerable areas (river beds, flood plains, hill slopes) will be directly affected. They already suffer from insecurities due to “poor governance, lack of investments in infrastructure and in the commons, strong connections between the political class, real-estate developers and public agencies” (Aromar EVI, 2008)

The case of Mumbai

On July 26, 2005, Mumbai was caught unawares by the highest rainfall of the century. It received 37.1 inches or 94.4 centimeters of rain in a 24-hour period higher than the annual average.

Public transport ceased to function. People were stranded at work or waded back home, their long return journey sometimes taking up to 10 hours. Suburban trains, rickshaws and approximately 10,000 commercial vehicles suffered damage.

The disaster happened due to various reasons. Mumbai, once upon a time, had its share of dissipation spaces - wetlands, wastelands, mangroves and salt-pan lands, etc. that acted like sponges and took the pressure out of the high tide. In the past few decades these has been destroyed systematically. Mangroves have given way to golf courses and the wetlands and the seacoast has been systematically reclaimed to accommodate the burgeoning mega-growth of the city. This has resulted in the choking and/or closing up of the riverine drainage systems. The Mithi river is a standing example of abuse and overextension – choked by waste and garbage, polluted by illegal effluents and decades of siltation, it was the Mithi that succumbed to the high tide and flooded, causing many of the suburbs to be under-water for over 48 hours.

The most affected people were the slum dwellers who live in the low lying areas. Their shelter built of salvaged materials, are highly vulnerable.

In the aftermath of the floods, hundreds of people died of various diseases (leptospirosis, gastroenteritis, malaria, dengue, hepatitis) because of poor or nonexistent sanitation.

Economic losses (both housing damages and destruction, and commercial and financial losses) were estimated in hundreds of crores.

Barriers to adaptation

One of the biggest barriers is the lack of adequate knowledge and information at every level, national, regional and local. Climate change is still not taken as an emergency.

Moreover most of the attention is more on mitigation but the focus needs to be also on adaptation, especially for the vulnerable communities. Policies have to insert into each and every planning and implementation exercise an adaptation.

(2) See UNFPA, State of World Population, 2007
(3) See Aromar Revi, 2008
(4) See World Bank, « Climate Resilient Cities »

Palabras claves

cambio climático, ciudad, urbanización

, India


India and climate change


This article is also available in French: Villes et changement climatique en Inde

Further readings:


Texto original

CED (Centre for Education and Documentation) - CED Mumbai: 3 Suleman Chambers, 4 Battery Street, Behind Regal Cinema, Mumbai - 400 001, INDIA - Phone: (022) 22020019 CED Bangalore: No. 7, 8th Main , 3rd phase, Domlur 2nd Stage, Bangalore - 560071, INDIA - Phone: (080) 25353397 - India - www.doccentre.net - cedbom@doccentre.net, cedban@doccentre.net

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