April 26, 2024


Are Indian cities climate-resilient?

(Image credit: Indian Air Force, GODL-India, via Wikimedia Commons)

Every year, there are discussions about how vulnerable Indian cities are to extreme weather events thanks to global warming and climate change. In particular, India will experience higher sea levels that threaten to submerge about a dozen coastal cities by the end of the century. There’s no shortage of literature on these issues.

As far as our response is concerned, the consensus is we’re running out of time. Report after report has highlighted increased temperatures year after year. Cities are the bloodline of the country and economy in many ways. But how effective are they in being sustainable? Are they resilient enough to mitigate the effects of climate change? Are we doing enough?


Big metropolitan cities in India aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they’re only going to expand, get bigger, and take up more space. A growing population means we need more space to accommodate people. The result is increased urbanisation.

Bumping up against rapid urbanisation is the climate crisis. The imperative to ensure these cities are climate-resilient has never been more urgent. It’s not something that can just be a concept on paper; it has to be a collective effort to create a sustainable, equitable, and adaptable space.

When Chennai was hit by Cyclone Michaung in December, it left a trail of destruction and killed over a dozen people. Over the past decade, Chennaiites have sadly become no strangers to flooding. It’s a rapidly urbanising city as waterbodies and eco-sensitive zones are frequently encroached upon. It’s something that’s seen in other cities too. But that’s just one aspect of why cities like Chennai flood so easily.

As far as other coastal cities are concerned, people are already feeling the effects of rising sea levels. Coastal erosion could lead to the loss of about 1,500 sq km of land by 2050. For coastal agriculture and fishing communities, that’s a loss of livelihood.

This doesn’t mean non-coastal cities have it easy. Far from it, in fact. Cities in Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand have experienced monsoon flooding and landslides. Delhi and Mumbai are no strangers to heavy rains and floods.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’re entering the peak summer months across India. Another aspect of making cities climate-resilient is to protect people from rising temperatures. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has warned of severe heatwaves in several states. In 2022, the IMD reported a steep increase in the number of heat wave days, about 280, across the country. It also reported a 0.51-degree Celsius increase in the annual mean land surface air temperature that same year.

Climate-resilient cities can’t be seen as distant utopias. One thing everybody can agree on is that we’re running out of time. It’s why cities, governments, policymakers, and everyone in between, are looking at how best to tackle the crisis. Have the policies in place made much of a difference so far? Are they good enough, even on paper? How climate-resilient are Indian cities?

VIEW: There has been good progress

The first bit of good news is that governments across all levels seem to understand the severity of the situation. At the top level, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs launched the  “ClimateSmart Cities Assessment Framework” (CSCAF) in partnership with the German government in 2019. It’s a unique framework to empower cities to assess their current situation and provides a roadmap to adapt and implement climate actions. With each passing year, the CSCAF has added more cities, with a target of 500 by 2025.

There are success stories abound. A 2023 report by the National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) stated that Pimpri-Chinchwad was well-placed to implement measures to become climate-resilient. The township, a thriving industrial belt, was given four out of five stars on climate performance under the ClimateSmart Cities Assessment Framework 2.0.

When India launched the ambitious Smart Cities Mission, one of the unknowns was how climate-resilient would these projects be. Once smart cities were implemented, the biodiversity situation improved in smart and non-smart cities. It’s because smart cities with dedicated Biodiversity Management Committees allocate more resources toward ecosystems and building open spaces. There’s also a focus on nature-based solutions like urban gardens, mangrove restoration in coastal Tamil Nadu, and urban wetland management in Bengaluru.

COUNTERVIEW: It’s a very mixed bag

Safe to say, Indian cities aren’t really all that climate-resilient. They’ve been unable to keep up with the increasing population growth and the effects of climate change. We see it every year with heatwaves, droughts, and flooding. While there have been interventions, they’ve been sectoral projects focussed on isolated and particular risks. Most cities have projects targeted to combat heatwaves and water scarcity, then extreme rainfall and inland flooding. Coastal flooding doesn’t get enough attention. This strategy overlooks how the risks converge to affect cities.

There’s also no point in drawing up plans and implementing them if other harmful activities continue unabated. In Chennai, realtors are given permits relatively easily to build new high-rises and apartment complexes on marshlands since there’s no space inside the city. Despite officials knowing how harmful this is, every time the city floods there’s talk of encroachments.

There’s one key issue that underlines any climate-resilient effort – the money. Inadequate finances are a real issue in getting projects implemented. Some estimates show India’s urban areas need $700 billion in investment to invest in low-carbon and climate-resilient infrastructure. Globally, climate finance for a sector like agriculture, which is obviously vital to India’s economy, is lower compared to energy and transportation, for example. There’s a substantial funding gap in finance, not just for urban projects but for the rural economy.

Reference Links:

  • Not just Chennai, a dozen Indian cities might go 3 feet underwater – India Today
  • This World Earth Day, Here’s A Case for Making Our Cities More Climate Resilient – The Quint
  • Are India’s Smart Cities Also Nature-Inclusive? – The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank
  • Confronting the Climate Crisis: Pathways to Urban Resilience – ORF
  • Expansion of cities calls for measures to make them disaster-resistant – The Week
  • Time to Scale up Climate Finances for Adaptation in Indian Agriculture – News18

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) Indian cities are climate-resilient.

b) Indian cities aren’t climate-resilient.


For the Right:

No, Congress has no intention of snatching your wealth

For the Left:

‘Democratic backsliding’: It’s time America stopped running with pro-India hare and hunting with anti-India hounds