Climate Change, Cities and Urban Poor

By: Dripto Mukhopadhyay
While uncontrolled migrant-driven urbanisation is a problem for the city management, it is also adversely affecting the environment through increased carbon footprint. Though all urban dwellers will face the impact of climate change, urban poor will be the worst hit.
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Cities are hubs of assets and economic activities, and therefore of population. Cities also degrade the environment, significantly contributing to climate change directly or indirectly. At the same time cities are also vulnerable to climate change impacts. Though degradation is primarily attributable to the affluent urban section, its repercussions impact the urban poor much more. With an already low level of access to basic infrastructure, climate change adversities are likely to worsen the environment for the urban poor.

However, the greatest challenge for any economy is to grow while also taking care of the environment. Containing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within prescribed limits so that the world can lower climate risks has hardly been fulfilled by any country, developed or developing. The growth path adopted by countries, despite agreeing to map low carbon development on paper, is yet to sync with the emission norms. This is especially more difficult for developing countries, fighting to secure rapid economic growth.

Uncontrolled migrant-driven urbanisation in developing world results in the inadequate supply of basic amenities, posing a serious problem for city governance. According to the ‘World economics and social survey 2013 – Sustainable development challenges’ of the United Nations, “today, about 1 billion urban residents live in slums without basic infrastructure and services. More than half the urban population in Sub-Saharan Africa and 40 per cent in South Asia lack access to basic sanitation; in Sub-Saharan Africa, close to 20 per cent of urban residents do not have access to safe water. Many more live without access to proper drainage or waste water removal”.

So, where is the correlation between climate change, cities and urban poor? The scenarios that emerge from climate summits each year regarding consensus on emission norms and other steps to be taken to fight climate change, do not predict an easy path of redemption. And, action taken by countries for implementing agreed prescriptions is even more disappointing.

Assuming this, cities are understood to be the worst affected due to its inherent activities. Overwhelming number of vehicles, lack of open green spaces, concrete jungles of residential and commercial spaces have created heat islands. Also, most cities in the developing world have poor drainage and waste management facilities apart from the absence of many amenities that are required to lead a dignified human life.

This brings the poor into the picture. With lesser purchasing power, the poorest section in every city typically dwells in informal settlements. The usage of ‘informal settlement’ in place of slums is to highlight that slum by definition leaves out a chunk of city population who live in similar or even poorer conditions. According to the 2012 report of the World Bank, ‘Climate change, disaster risk and the urban poor: Cities building resilience for a changing world’, one would find these informal settlements “prone to high risk from landslides, sea-level rise and flooding. These neighbourhoods are made even more vulnerable by overcrowded living conditions, unsafe housing, inadequate nutrition, poor health, and lack of safety nets.”

Carbon emission and urban space
Environmental experts have stressed on sound policy making and have suggested consolidation of environmental metrics within the usual framework of national decision-making and planning, so as to make it a vital part of the growth process. The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University’s Earth Institute have been coming up with relevant cross-country environmental indices since 2000. The Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), the precursor to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), complemented the millennium development goals and was presented as a counter-weight to the gross domestic product (GDP), which was earlier the sole measure of economic performance of a country. Broadly speaking, the EPI, an annual exercise, holds each country to the same standard when it comes to ensuring the presence of basic environmental and health conditions. This is one of the most authentic measure to compare countries in terms of their environmental performance.

EPI 2014 included 178 countries in the study, considering 8 broad parameters with certain sub-indicators. Switzerland was ranked first, while India ranked at 155. India’s ranking was especially poor in terms of health impact, air quality, water and sanitation, biodiversity, and climate and energy (Table 1).

Since no state-wise carbon emission data for India is available in the public domain, we can use an estimation constructed by T Ramachandra, et al, in the paper ‘Decentralised carbon footprint analysis for opting climate change mitigation strategies in India’, in 2012, published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, assuming that it will provide at least an indicative, if not accurate, trend. If we consider CO2 emissions, being the primary generator of the climate change debate, Maharashtra (105259.9 Gigagrams – Gg), Andhra Pradesh (82758.3 Gg), Uttar Pradesh (180683 Gg), Gujarat (79137.8 Gg) and Tamil Nadu (71107.4 Gg) contribute to 43 per cent of the total CO2 emission in the country. If we consider 10 industrialised and urbanised states, the share contribution of CO2 becomes as high as 72 per cent.

India is urbanising rapidly. Census of India 2011 reports that more than 31 per cent of the population in India reside in urban areas (Fig 1), with 10 states holding more than 77 per cent of India’s urban population (Table 2). Out of these 10, just 2 states, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh together have a share of about 25 per cent of the total urban population. Primarily the industrialised states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka have provided a fillip to rapid urbanisation. However, urbanisation, as defined by per cent of urban population to total population of a state, does not really portray the lopsided picture that India is experiencing for the last few decades. There is a stark difference between bigger and smaller urban centres in the country in terms of economic activities and infrastructure.

As expected, studies point towards big cities being highly vulnerable to climate change risks. According to the 2010 World Bank report ‘Climate Risks and Adaptation in Asian Coastal Megacities’, Kolkata might top the list of the top 10 cities at highest risk by 2070 in terms of population exposure to storm activity and sea level rise. Mumbai follows right behind. Miami is the only city located in a developed country that features in the top 10. The other cities listed are Dhaka (Bangladesh), Guangzhou (China), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Shanghai (China), Bangkok (Thailand), Rangoon (Myanmar) and HaiPhong (Vietnam) respectively.

Vulnerability and slums: Informal settlements, where the urban poor live, are common across all urban areas in the country. Census of India follows a certain definition of slums, which are suggestive of living conditions of the urban poor. However, a large part of the urban poor outside these slums are not classified in this category. Bereft of alternatives, the present study uses slum data as published by the Indian Census. As expected, the Indian states with a higher urbanisation level have a higher slum population. Significantly, the top 10 states constitute 85 per cent of the total slum household of the country (Fig 2). More importantly, only four states, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal account for more than 55 per cent of total slum households in the country.

In the second scenario, a comparison between slum households and total households has been constructed. Figure 3 indicates that slum households account for more than 12 per cent of total households in Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Maharashtra. Juxtaposing the information against the amenities gap (Fig 4) revealed an alarming picture. The three most slum-ridden states have been able to provide basic amenities to less than 50 per cent of their slum population. Moreover, in more than 50 per cent of the states, slum households were revealed to be vulnerable in terms of basic amenities available to them.

Discussion and way forward
In terms of regional development we need to understand the tenuous relationship between climate change and the Indian cities and work out its implications on vulnerable groups of population. The 2013 report ‘Economic contributions of urban poor’ prepared by Indicus Analytics and Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) suggests that informal dwellers in India contribute to about 8 per cent of the total urban GDP of India. Despite this the slum population constitutes the most neglected and vulnerable group of a city scape. Studies undertaken by TARU Leading Edge Pvt Ltd, ‘Indore: City resilience strategies for changing climatic scenarios, in May 2012, and an unpublished report of PRIA ‘Strengthening civil society voices for urban poor – Slum listing report, Jaipur, Rajasthan’, in 2013 clearly show that slums are located in close proximity of water bodies and drainage system that are areas that pose health risks and are prone to flooding (Fig 5).

The forecast by National Building Organisation (NBO) projects unprecedented growth of urban population till 2017 (Fig 6), which suggests that in most of the states the growth in slum population will be more than 10 per cent during 2011 to 2017. The projected growth in slum population is alarmingly high in some of the states such as Arunachal Pradesh (34 per cent).

Another study (Table 3) of scenarios drawn by 2012 World Bank report, ‘Climate change, disaster risk’ suggests that several states in India with large slum population have failed to address habitation issues of its residences. With rising urban blight, these states need policy interventions to drive it down from throwing up the worst climate change refugees of the nation. The states that emerge as primary defaulters are Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Delhi and Tamil Nadu, although perhaps not in that order. The nation builders need to review or usher in policies towards urgent interventions in keeping with the paradigm of regional development, to combat the increasing vulnerability of marginalised and poor slum population in the backdrop of a climatically challenged environment.

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