Of Jaundiced Cities and Climate Preparedness

By Ranjan K Panda *

In the recently concluded COP 20 at Lima, debates about cities and climate change deservedly got substantial space.  Transformation of the cities has become a buzzword in climate change negotiations.  Known as huge contributors to Green House Gas emissions, cities across the world are starting to look for solutions to the problem.  It is now apparent that no climate action is possible without taking the cities on board.

sambalpur city

At home, here in India, our new political leadership is talking about smart cities.  But is is not clear what exactly is a smart city.  However, going by the predominant mindset of our policy makers, one would expect concrete roads, high risers, metro trains, international airports so on and so forth in a smart city.  Obsession towards structures (more popularly known as infrastructure) is what these smart cities are supposed to have.  The hypothesis, city dwellers will manage thise infrastructure by paying service charges to the managers, supposedly appointed under PPP models.  Will it work?  No one knows and no one questions.  I will tell you how.

A jaundiced city

Sambalpur, a western Odisha city in India, is one of the most important cities in the central highlands of the country: a business hub, an industrial hub, a cultural hub and almost everything that a medium range city can have.  The government of Odisha has supposedly sent Sambalpur’s name, along with that of a few other cities, to the central government for coverage under the ‘smart city’ programme.  It is natural for one to expect a level of smartness already existing in this city.  Infrastructure wise, the city has many milestones to its credit.  One of India’s first modern temples, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s words, was built here in the form of Asia’s largest earthen dam, the Hirakud dam.  It has to its credit Odisha’s first engineering university, second University, second Medical College and many more.

Ironically, all this and the smart governance through PPP have not been able to save this historic city from the jaws of a jaundice epidemic that has killed at least 20 people in six months.  More than 2000 are fighting against it at the moment.  And these are official figures.  Unofficially, the figures are bigger.  During the launch of a campaign around urban pollution load on Mahanadi River in September last year, a civil society group had warned that the water supply systems and sanitation in the city is in a disastrous situation.

In May this year, when the first cases of Hepatitis E started to be diagnosed, the local administration took shelter in denials.  As a result the epidemic started to spread.  Later, it was realized that the local authorities had no proper facilities to detect such viruses.  Test samples were sent to state and national level laboratories, but were never made public.  The action got delayed and it is only after the virus started to take lives that the administration sprang into action.  It was too late and many lives were already lost.  The epidemic has still got the city in its grip and may continue to have disastrous impacts for months to come.

This is not a case in isolation.  Throw a stone in any city of this nation and you will find the local administration tripping over one civic issue or the other.  Smartness in infrastructure does not help, smartness in governance does.  And this is seriously lacking.  This is the day to day business.  In case of climate change impacts, the plight is, well, imaginable.

Back to Lima

Cities, as was debated in Lima, besides being large contributors to GHG emissions, would also be receiving major impacts of climate change.  This becomes a relevant point to discuss, especially because every week the urban population increases by about one million inhabitants.  More than half of this new population then lives in slums with inadequate facilities making them more vulnerable to problems caused by climate change.  Such pockets in the cities are far less resilient than the other parts, which have better infrastructure and facilities.  The latest IPCC report rightly points out, “many global risks of climate change are concentrated in urban areas”.  Cities face the double challenge of keeping pace with urbanisation and adapting to climate change.  They have to act fast.

In December 2015, a new international climate change agreement should be agreed upon in Paris.  Cities across the world should gear up to show that they can take necessary steps to become climate smart.  Cities are looked into as new indicators of development and modernity and those are places where the important policy makers and leaders stay.

Earlier this year, the Climate Alliance advocates in Europe resolved to take up to three binding targets:  50 per cent less CO2, 40 per cent more energy efficiency and a 40 per cent share of renewable energy by 2020 with the objective of halving per capita CO2 emissions by 2030.  Many such local actions on energy savings, energy efficiency and renewable energy promotion would be helpful as examples for cities all across. The A report shared during COP 20 points out that the Covenant of Mayors initiative, officially launched by the European Commission in 2008, has exceeded all the initial expectations and has expanded far beyond the EU borders. This initiative includes more than 6,000 local authorities spread across 52 countries today. Covenant signatories have formally committed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 per cent by 2020. What is remarkable in this initiative is the fact that each city is reported to have devised its own method.  The key was respect for territorial diversity as against standardisation of measures.   The signatory local and regional authorities are based on a set of principles such as long-term commitment, citizens’ involvement, and ambitious and integrated climate action. It has been led from the localities and hence has been a good example for other cities in the world to follow.

Cities that are growing mostly as concrete infrastructures at the cost of local biodiversity, including rivers, water bodies and forests, have to look within and find out their indigenous solutions.  Local people should play a major role in planning resilient cities.  In the name of growth and modernity, ironically, many governments are adopting city plans from the environmentally unsustainable cities.  This has to stop and locally adapted plans that the local people can sustain should be adopted to make our cities Climate Smart.



* The author is a known researcher, writer and practitioner in water and climate change issues.  Email: [email protected]


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1 Comment
  1. Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy says

    In cities, it is not greenhouse gases that is important but urban-heat-island effect that directly contributes to global temperature rise. According to IPCC, it is around 10%. The urban heat-island effect is associated with the congestion factor, pollution factor, vertical structures factor, clean and green factor, water resources factor. As long as the governments encourage rural to urban migration, these factors continuously increase that help urban-heat-island effect.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

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