The 2020 Call For Code Global Challenge by IBM is calling on developers across the globe to find technological solutions to halt and reverse the impact of Climate Change. To extend support for the initiative, Nature inFocus is publishing a series of Climate Change stories from around the country.
The climate crisis is not going to pause while the world deals with the COVID-19 crisis. We know and acknowledge the severity of climate change in the form of extreme events and disasters: typhoons, hurricanes, cyclones, floods, droughts, landslides, and the like. There is a substantial and growing body of research on the impacts of climate crises in triggering widespread and irreversible impacts such as biodiversity collapse and desertification.
But just as formidable and far less understood are the “slow” consequences of climate change such as prolonged drought, gradual increases in heat, reduced nutrition or the positive feedback between climate change and air pollution. These are no less harmful. A 2019 study by the Tata Centre for Development at the University of Chicago warned that if India continues on a path of high emissions, by the year 2100, it could face as many as 1.54 million additional deaths per year due to heat induced by climate change. Pregnant women and newborn infants are especially at risk from heat waves and cold waves. The effects of a prolonged drought, which impacts food security, can linger through generations, impacting maternal health and raising generations of stunted and malnourished children.
Cities constitute the battleground where most of these challenges will be faced. Climate-related failures have generated waves of climate refugees. Once making a decent living as farmers, fishers, grazers, weavers, potters and blacksmiths, these migrants have made the long trek across hundreds of kilometres of inhospitable terrain, driven by the need to eke out a living in far-flung cities and towns. The millions of migrant workers we noticed during the weeks and months of lockdown across Indian cities are a strong testament to how many such people there are in urban areas – and how tragically invisible they have remained to public sight.
It is no surprise that these migrants – crammed into tents covered in tarpaulin or protected by flimsy aluminium roofs, living in unsanitary conditions next to garbage dumps and open drains, dealing with the vagaries of heat and air pollution, and exposed to a high load of infectious diseases from mosquitoes, rats and other vectors – face the brunt of climate impacts, slow and fast. The slums of Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata are hit hard by cyclones, while the poor in Ahmedabad and Delhi face the brunt of heatwaves, and in Bangalore and Hyderabad, that of drought.
Globally, when national governments and international agreements have failed to act sufficiently on advancing climate change, cities have led the way. When the United States of America signalled their withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate change, a group consisting of more than 50 of the cities in the USA came together to indicate their willingness to work on climate action. Other cities have taken the lead on various fronts. Prominent amongst these is the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, with membership from more than 100 cities across the world, accounting for over 25% of the GDP.
Although a few Indian cities have signed onto the C40 membership, including Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore and Jaipur, in reality, few cities in India have taken climate change seriously. An exception is Ahmedabad, whose Heat Action Plan, the first such plan in India, estimates that it has resulted in reducing close to 1200 heatwave-associated deaths annually. Another notable exception is the city of Gorakhpur. Through the efforts of the Gorakhpur Environment Action Group, which has worked in the city for over a decade, farmers at the fringes of the city were persuaded to adopt climate-friendly livelihoods such as organic farming and multi-cropping, supported by weather advisories provided to them via text messages on their phones. As a result, the fertiliser and pesticide runoffs decreased, improving the ecological quality of neighbouring water bodies, and farmer yields went up, encouraging many farmers to hold on to their lands. Farmlands, in turn, acted as a sponge, soaking up the excess rainfall, and protecting the city from floods during periods of extreme rainfall.
Gorakhpur’s example points us to the need to incorporate nature-based services into India’s urban climate action plans. As our research in Bangalore demonstrates, trees can cool the adjacent micro-climate substantially, decreasing ambient air temperatures by 3-5°C and reducing the temperature of asphalted road surfaces by as much as 23°C. They substantially reduce local air pollution as well, reducing levels of PM10, SO2 and NOx, which cause significant deleterious health impacts. Lakes, ponds, rivers, streams and local water bodies counteract the effect of urban heat islands. Together with coastal and inland wetlands, these water bodies act as sponges, soaking up the excess water in the monsoon and protecting the city against floods, and supplying this excess water in the form of ground and surface water in the dry summer months, making the city resilient to droughts.
In Indian cities, where lakhs of people depend on nature-based livelihoods such as grazing, farming and fishing, urban forests and woodlots, parks, wetlands, water bodies and grasslands are critical buffers against income loss and nutritional stress. We are only slowly beginning to understand the importance of urban ecosystems for physical and mental health, but they play a major role in keeping people’s wellbeing intact. During the COVID-19 lockdown, across cities in India, people faced increased levels of stress. The sound and sight of birds and butterflies, and the chance to escape even temporarily to green surroundings, helps reduce anxiety and increases the likelihood that people living in cramped cities will be motivated to exercise and stay fit. Foraging for wild weeds in open spaces provides important food and health supplements for many low-income communities, who use these greens, roots and seeds in their daily cooking and as herbal medicines to ward off expensive visits to the doctor.
Urban ecosystems and the nature-based services they provide are critical for climate resilience of cities and for the weakest and most marginalised people who live in them. Unfortunately, the few city-level climate action plans that exist for Indian cities barely mention the importance of nature-based services. They betray an almost complete lack of understanding of the importance of restoring places of nature such as parks, urban forests, rivers and lakes as functioning, thriving ecosystems rather than monoculture plantations of trees or concrete-rimmed expanses of water. Yet such an approach will be essential if Indian cities are to develop the capacity to withstand climate change in a manner that helps the poorest and most vulnerable residents as well as the wealthy and relatively self-sufficient. For this, we need a complete revamp of existing climate action plans, as well as a serious investment in ecological education, capacity building and training of planners and bureaucrats. Only such investment, coupled with long term thinking, can advance the agenda of urban climate resilience.
If you are a developer interested in helping address some of these challenges, visit the Call For Code website and get started on your idea. Winners will be awarded $200,000, receive open source support from The Linux Foundation, and will get a chance to meet mentors and investors. You will find ample resources and support to see your technology come to life.