India's coastal infrastructure needs to be resilient to climate change

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India Climate Dialogue, India

With India building enormous infrastructure along its 7,500-km-long coastline, the need is to make this infrastructure resilient to climate change impacts. But there seems to be no money for this purpose, nor is sufficient attention being paid to the enormous problem

(Image by Bharat S Raj/ Wikimedia Commons)

(Image by Bharat S Raj/ Wikimedia Commons)

In October 2014, when Cyclone Hudhud hit the coast of Andhra Pradesh near the city of Vishakhapatnam, the impact was immense. While the decades of development that had gone into the Indian cyclone warning system ensured that the death toll was minimal, the loss to infrastructure was high.

The economic loss for Andhra Pradesh was estimated at Rs 90,000 crore ($20 billion, approximately). In addition, the cyclone damaged urban systems, and recovery took weeks.

The situation was similar when Mumbai experienced unusually heavy rainfall in July 2005, which immobilised India’s financial capital and had an impact on businesses across the country.

The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC-AR5) has warned that due to climate change extreme weather events such as Cyclone Hudhud are likely to become more frequent and stronger. The events would hit coastal life and property even harder when their impacts get combined with the sea level rise that climate change is causing.

There is a need to build the principles of climate resilience into coastal infrastructure development. This would mean incorporating them into already-existing urban infrastructure. For future infrastructure development, climate resilience will need to be built in right from the planning stage.

This is of special importance since much of the Indian coast is coming in for development activities in the near- and mid-term future. The divided state of Andhra Pradesh, for instance, is planning to construct its new capital – Amaravati – near the coast and not very far from where Cyclone Hudhud hit.

According to a policy brief recently published by the New Delhi-based think tank The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the main challenges for incorporating climate resilience into coastal infrastructure starts with the non-availability of fine-resolution data such as sea level measurement and variation in precipitation. Such location-specific information – within the larger picture of how climate change is affecting or will affect the Indian coast – can help planners and administrators to build in climate resilience.

The fact that there is uncertainty about future climate impacts complicates this further. It does not pay to use limited financial resources to upgrade or retrofit infrastructure when the specific trajectory that climate change could take is not certain.

For the administrators and managers the challenges are at a more practical level. The existing infrastructure is usually old, overused and of poor maintenance. Issues relating to the jurisdiction of multiple agencies make a single window exercise difficult. Even though over the years environmental concerns are getting incorporated into urban land use planning, it still needs pioneering vision to incorporate climate change concerns.

No money for climate resilient infrastructure

At present there is no window for financing climate resilient infrastructure, according to the TERI study. One avenue could have been the National Mission on Sustainable Habitat, one of the eight missions initiated under the National Action Plan on Climate Change. However, the mission has not been implemented yet.

“There is a need to address these barriers in a systematic manner by creating clear roadmaps and action plans; creating mandates and enabling mechanisms, and institutional arrangements,” the study notes. “Besides, the considerations of cost and investments, both short- and long-term, detailed design features and interventions that would need expert engineering solutions are critical to planning for new infrastructure or retrofitting/climate proofing of existing ones.”

Planning for climate resilience would need to start from the time of locating the infrastructure facilities. For instance, infrastructure for solid waste management, especially landfills, have to be located keeping in mind the projected sea level rise. Similarly, planning for climate resilience would mean ensuring water supply channels have back-ups for extreme weather events. It is a good time to introduce climate resilience considerations while retiring old infrastructure and replacing with new ones.

Building climate resilience also requires buy-in from the political representatives, since it requires coordination among multiple stakeholders. Elected representatives, such as mayors and municipal commissioners, have the authority to ensure this coordination.

Policies that have a combination of incentives and disincentives will be needed to promote renewable energy. Energy efficiency standards, tax incentives, financing mechanisms, and funding for research and development can have long-term positive impacts.

The TERI study reinforces expert understanding about the need for strengthening climate resilience in coastal infrastructure. The institute has brought together the main findings of the study in the form a brief that can help policymakers understand the significance of building climate resilience into current and future development.

India is vulnerable to sea level rise, since it has a coastline that is more than 7,000 km in length. The IPCC-AR5 scenarios predict that global mean sea level rise by the last two decades of the 21st century (as compared to sea levels in 1986-2005) will probably be in the ranges of 26-55 cm under a low greenhouse gas emissions scenario, and 45-82 cm for a high-emissions scenario. Thus, while planning for infrastructure development, it is pertinent to assume that the water of the sea could be half to one metre higher than what it is today. A more recent study has forecast a far higher rise in the sea level.

Ill-planned development accentuates risk

The actual sea level rise would also be accentuated by the fact that the natural coastline would be disturbed by increased activities. Destruction of coastal sand dunes, cutting down mangroves, dredging coastal mudflats, or building a bund across a coastal wetland would all worsen the local adverse impact of sea level rise. India’s coastal infrastructure development plans include many examples of such ill-planned development.

At any rate, with cyclones and floods forecast to become more frequent and more severe, infrastructure would need to more robust in construction and design, and also be able to spring back into action with minimum downtime.

With more power plants, refineries, captive ports, special economic zones, tourism complexes and highways planned there will certainly be growth of urban centres along India’s coastline, and more migration to these areas. Everything points to the urgent need to build climate resilience into the new and existing infrastructure.