October heat is a fact of Mumbai’s annual rhythm. Even by the city’s standards for oppressive heat, we lived through an October which should set off alarm bells, have us join the dots between high urban temperatures and climate change, move forward decisions on climate change adaptation, and take a long hard look at what the city is doing — and what it must do — to address climate change. Of course, this isn’t happening.

The high temperatures this October were remarkable for a number of reasons: the Met department recorded more intense heat than in the last few years, the maximum temperature breached the 37 degree Celsius mark for ten days of the month, the highest temperature recorded in the month was a blinding 38 degree Celsius at the Santacruz observatory on October 28, and the high temperatures through the month were a good three to five degree Celsius higher than they should have been.

Mumbai, by scientific reckoning, felt climate change; sceptics of the phenomenon can go for a swim. The Met office explained the unusual heat as the result of southwest monsoon weakening/withdrawing or the northeast monsoon not setting in on schedule, and so on. It’s the meteorological explanation of what we lived through. Beyond that, there are realities and projections which the city ignores at its own peril.

Citizens could not be bothered to pore over scientific literature, reports of international agencies, and coalitions formed by international cities to address climate change. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and the party that presides over it have not engaged with the issue at all, at the academic or political level. The Devendra Fadnavis government is too busy congratulating itself over the completion of four “successful” years in office; its predecessors were busy simply surviving as governments. But time and climate change wait for no one.

The relationship between cities and climate change is so well established in scientific literature that it would be foolish to deny or question it. The United Nations has said in one report after another that cities — especially large and dense megacities — are on the front line of both the cause and effect of climate change. Cause, because millions of people translate into higher energy use, higher emissions, energy inefficient buildings, landfills and sewage systems, denudation of natural ecosystems; and effect, because of heat waves, coastal flooding, urban heat island effects, epidemics especially involving vector-borne diseases, and impacts on transport and utility systems.

Mumbai is among the most populous cities and most dense cities in the world. Large sections of it have been reclaimed and it thrives along the sea coast. By virtue of its socio-economic profile, its heaves and fortunes are tied inextricably to the country itself. In an international list of 20 cities, it is the second most vulnerable city to coastal flooding by 2050 and has the sixth largest ‘at-risk’ assets among all major port cities in the world. And, of course, it suffered the July 2005 flood.

Despite the stakes involved, as international studies have pointed out, there is a “certain inertia” in the local and state governments to tackle climate change head-on and to formulate and implement adaption strategies at the local level. Besides, the city’s political economy is part of the problem. The decision-makers, who are politicians and the power elite do not or cannot take all Mumbaiites — especially slum-dwellers and middle classes — on board.

A climate action plan was announced back in 2010, the contracted private organisation submitted the draft report in 2014, the state cabinet accepted it only in January this year. The report is for Maharashtra but it has projections in temperature and rainfall for Mumbai, offers a Vulnerability Index for different areas of the state, and traces out the impact of climate change on six sectors. The Fadnavis government announced a panel of experts to oversee its implementation and there has been little movement since.

October heat will pass but the inertia on climate change adaptation could extract a heavy price from Mumbai in the decades to come.

First Published: Oct 31, 2018 23:32 IST

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