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Indian cities can mitigate the impact of climate change on migrants with better affordable housing

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Migrants who are forced to leave their homes in rural India due to climate change are also hit by climate impacts in mega-cities. The lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable Indians are turned upside down by this double blow and the trend, according to a study published in the academic journal Nature, is expected to worsen over the next decades. This presents a significant challenge for cities that are already far from ensuring the safety and security of their poorest residents.

In large Indian metropolises, migrants living under tarpaulins and metal sheets have little protection from the elements. They roast in the summer heat and struggle to stay warm in the winter. Their homes are flooded by the increasingly choppy monsoon. Around the year, they struggle to access drinking water for their daily needs. Their lungs are suffocated from the poor quality of the indoor air. Decades of marginalization and neglect have put their comfort, health, productivity and safety at risk.

UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change latest report highlights India’s deep vulnerabilities to climate change due to its long coastline and reliance on monsoons and rivers fed by snow. This foreshadows that as the world heats up and weather conditions become more erratic, millions of Indians will be displaced.

In fact, massive migrations are already taking place. According to the 2011 census, 455 million Indians could be classified as migrants, 64% of whom are from rural areas. Their migration is both seasonal and permanent. “A large majority of migrants are from the low-income states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (36% of total out-of-state migration),” according to one Nature study on how climatic hazards affect vulnerable migrants. “These northern states belong to the most cultivated Indo-Gangetic region in South Asia. “

This massive exodus is caused both by short-term disasters – like Cyclone Amphan which displaced 2.4 million people in India, mostly from West Bengal and Odisha – and by slow-onset issues like drought. , sea level rise, water stress, crop yield reductions, and longer and more intense heat waves.

A man collects his belongings from his damaged store after Cyclone Amphan in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal in May 2020. Credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters.

South Asia is particularly affected by flooding, as another study showed in Nature which used satellite data to measure flood exposure. The Indus and Ganges-Brahmaputra basins had the highest absolute numbers of people exposed to flooding (17.0-19.9 million and 107.8-134.9 million, respectively) and increased proportions of population exposed flooding (36% and 26%, respectively) between 2000 and 2015.

In addition to these disturbing patterns, following the pandemic, the proportion of India’s rural population dependent on agriculture has increased. According to the Indian Government’s Periodic Labor Force Survey, employment in agriculture as a percentage of total employment increased from 42.5% in 2018-’19 to 45.6% in 2019-’20. This marks a worrying trend for the economic development of India as it means that the workforce is returning from manufacturing to agriculture. It also means that the livelihoods of the poorest rural Indians will be directly threatened by the uncertainties of a warming world.

For many seeking to escape rural misery, the lack of adequate and affordable housing, clean water and access to health care in cities increases vulnerability to health risks. When a climate disaster such as a flood occurs, “marginal migrants – who generally have the fewest resources to protect themselves from external disturbances – are among the most affected by these impacts,” according to the Nature to study.

During heat waves, technologies like air conditioning are beyond the reach of the urban poor. And due to the density of housing, low-income communities have limited green cover that provides shade. In many Indian cities such as Mumbai, development guidelines have been diluted to minimize the amount of open space for ventilation, especially between buildings that are supposed to be affordable.

Mumbai service level exposure to heat risk. Credit: World Resources Institute

The magnitude of this problem is enormous. One in six urban Indians live in a slum in cramped and unsanitary conditions, according to the 2011 census. Cities are believed to be engines of growth and intergenerational mobility, creating opportunities for children from poor backgrounds to rise up. higher than their parents in the income pyramid. However, widespread disregard for the physiological and security needs of the urban poor makes them more vulnerable to income shocks and limited upward mobility in the age of climate change.

This growing inequality has more important implications. Warmer days widen socio-economic gaps at school because inequitable access to cooling affects the learning levels of the disadvantaged. Likewise, when temperatures rise, workers tend to be less productive. For example, according to one study, “the productivity of workers engaged in weaving fabrics or making clothing dropped by up to 4% per degree when temperatures rose above 27 ° Celsius.”

Apart from policies that address structural flaws in housing supply and planning that promotes equity and inclusion, what can help residents of low-income communities cope with climate-related threats?

Participatory planning and implementation strategies, such as locally-led adaptation, can play a key role in ensuring that communities have a say in decision-making based on their understanding of resource needs. , service delivery and community dynamics. Locally-driven adaptation “recognizes that those closest to the effects of climate change – particularly those who face marginalization due to systemic inequalities in income, education, social capital and political power – need funding and decision-making power to ensure that adaptation investments reflect their priorities, ”according to a World Resources Institute discussion paper. This can foster individual and collective action on adaptation priorities and implementation processes.

Lohiya Nagar in Pune. Credit: Aaran Patel.

However, this is complicated by the fact that although the poor are constantly disturbed by climate change, they often lack the political clout to deal with climate impacts. In addition, the organization takes time and financial resources. “We have to take into account that there are many other immediate issues that capture the attention of the poor,” said Bijal Brahmbhatt, director of the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust. “Access to water, sanitation and housing are among the many challenges they face in their everyday lives.

When a problem like water stress is exacerbated by climate change, it has a disproportionate impact on women and girls. When water is scarce, women have to spend more time procuring it for the household, which in turn impinges on their work in the informal sector. If there is a lack of water and longer lines at communal water sources, women who work in daily wage roles – for example, as construction workers – miss the chance to be chosen by entrepreneurs and lose the daily wage, Brahmbhatt explained.

Recognizing that climate change will exacerbate the distress felt by marginalized communities, the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust began collecting information and conducting informal interviews with women from low-income communities in Ahmedabad to assess how they were coping with stresses. related to weather conditions. The responses they received – the heat has increased, access to water is very irregular – have often been described as natural disasters. “The challenge was to explain the scientific impact of climate change in layman’s terms,” Brahmbhatt said.

The Mahila Housing SEWA Trust subsequently launched a series of initiatives to empower women, pilot affordable technologies adapted to local needs and create access to financial solutions. This included efforts to eliminate sources of vector-borne diseases through community-led surveillance efforts during the monsoon and piloting a heat insurance program for the urban poor. The climate lens is now at the heart of the Trust’s mission to organize and empower women from poor communities to improve their habitat. Their work on climate adaptation spans 34 cities in eight Indian states and has been recognized by the World Resources Institute’s Prize for Cities.

An alley in the Lower Parel district of Mumbai. Credit: Suraj Katra, Mumbai Water Narratives.

Beyond these programs, the organization has used the lessons of its interventions to shape policy and hold government accountable to the poor. “We want women’s voices to directly influence policies,” Brahmbhatt said. Women who completed its training programs contributed to the 2017 Ahmedabad Heat Action Plan, the 2019 Monsoon Action Plan, and the city’s cool roof policy.

The example of Ahmedabad is instructive of how other cities could benefit from the experiential knowledge of communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. In addition to allocating municipal funds for locally driven adaptation, state and Union governments, donors and development banks can play an important role in providing finance for this urgent problem.

Mumbai and Delhi, two of India’s largest migrant destinations, are developing their own climate and development plans. These need to be influenced by the broader trend of urbanization and the challenges it presents for housing and other strained municipal services. Without urgent and thoughtful interventions to meet the needs of the most vulnerable, Indian cities will not be able to offer much hope to the growing number of climate migrants.

Aaran Patel is an MP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a Kalpalata member for writings on architecture and urban issues for 2021.


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