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Explained: How climate change could impact Mumbai by 2050

A new study projects that in the absence of quick and significant action, Mumbai in 2050 will look much like what it did in 1700 — with the sea having reclaimed much of the landfill that the city has been built on

Written by Nikhil Anand , Caroline Terens |
Updated: December 13, 2019 3:55:22 pm
As city residents are very aware every monsoon, much of Mumbai is tenuous land made dry, just a few metres above sea level. Hindmata, Dadar in July 2013. (Express Photo by Prashant Nadkar)

On October 29, 2019, the journal Nature published an important paper identifying the dangers climate change poses specifically to Mumbai and other coastal cities.

The research, carried by many newspapers including The Indian Express, indicates that anthropogenic climate change will inundate significant sections of Mumbai by 2050. Unless the city takes significant action in the next three decades, the sea will reclaim much of the landfill that the city has been built on. As per this study, Mumbai in 2050 will look a lot like Mumbai in 1700, unless the city makes serious efforts to adapt to climate change.

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Together with Guangzhou, Jakarta, Miami, and Manila, Mumbai now regularly appears on a list of cities endangered by climate change. As the cyclones battering coastlines near Mumbai and unseasonal, heavy rains indicate, climate change is not some event in the distant future. It is present. It is here.

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Recent studies, published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and in Nature by Lu and Flavelle in October 2019 indicate that its effects are more intensive than earlier models predicted.

For example, sea levels are rising significantly faster than were previously estimated. The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, published last month by the IPCC, indicates that sea levels are significantly higher than were originally anticipated, and as such will have significant impacts on cities like Mumbai.

mumbai climate change, climate central research, India floods, floods in 2019, india monsoon, climate change, global warming Mumbai’s past, present, future? Maps of the city and the sea in 1700, 2019 and 2050 (projected)

As city residents are very aware every monsoon, much of Mumbai is tenuous land made dry, just a few metres above sea level. The IPCC report warns Mumbai’s planners and administrators and states that “in the absence of adaptation, more intense and frequent extreme sea level events, together with trends in coastal development will increase expected annual flood damages by 2-3 orders of magnitude by 2100.”

The report points out, however, that “well-designed coastal protection” could both “reduce expected damages” and “be cost efficient for urban and densely populated… areas”.

Despite the urgent need for adaptation and action in a vulnerable city like Mumbai, the city is ignoring climate adaptation programs and infrastructures in its development planning processes. Worse, Mumbai’s ongoing infrastructure projects don’t address climate change, and as such, may significantly worsen climate risks that its 19 million residents face.

Take, for example, the ways in which climate change is treated in Mumbai’s new Coastal Road project, now stalled by the Bombay High Court. The project proposes the construction of a 29.2 km road on the western coast of Mumbai, that aims to mitigate “extreme traffic congestion” and “transport related pollution” in hopes of increasing productivity and quality of life for citizens. (Environmental Impact Assessment Report)

Much of the project is to be built on reclaimed land, even as project documents acknowledge that reclamation makes the city vulnerable to flooding. Further, our reading of the Coastal Road Detailed Project Report and the Environmental Impact Assessment show that these studies significantly underestimate sea level rise, a key consideration for designing a road being built on reclaimed land.

For example, in its assessment of risks from sea level rise, the project uses data from the 20th century (the period between 1878 and 1993), which indicates an average sea level rise of 1.27 mm/year. (See Coastal Road Detailed Project Report p 47, EIA p 98.)

But the rate of sea level rise has more than doubled in India in just over a decade in line with global rates. Research conducted by Dr A S Unnikrishnan and his team at the National Institute of Oceanography in Goa has shown that sea level rise has increased to 3.2 mm/year in the period 1993-2012 (Unnikrishnan et. al 2015).

The IPCC projects sea level rise to accelerate still further and faster in the coming years. If infrastructure is being designed for the future (and not for the past), then it remains unclear why planners do not use current and future projections that will more correctly estimate future climate risk in the design of urban infrastructure.

As we note flooding in Mumbai, elsewhere in Maharashtra, Kerala, and beyond, we ask, who would be held responsible for the catastrophes that may unfold in Mumbai when important climate data are ignored in the design of new infrastructure projects? And who will be held responsible for urban catastrophes that might ensue, when climate infrastructure and adaptation plans are never implemented in the city despite all evidence pointing to the need for urgent interventions?

Mumbai is in the midst of a climate emergency. While it is slow and difficult to perceive in the everyday, this emergency requires city administrators to rethink how Mumbai may be remade in and with rising waters. These unprecedented times demand new imaginaries, designs, plans, and infrastructures, not the materialisation of failed ideas of the 20th century.

For instance, award winning landscape architects and planners Dilip da Cunha and Anuradha Mathur have shown that sea walls, river embankments, and reclamation do not always prevent inundation from intensified rains and rising seas. They instead magnify the risks of inundation. Water seeks its own level. While a wall might prevent inundation in one part of the city, it would exacerbate inundation in other parts. Managed wetlands provide water with a place to go, but are difficult to create. What might the Municipal Corporation do to make the city livable amidst a climate crisis?

Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is a human issue and an urban issue that will dramatically affect every resident of Mumbai, particularly its urban poor. Mumbai’s current priorities are misplaced. It is currently spending a large part of the city’s ‘rainy day’ corpus to construct a coastal road that few will use. Wouldn’t it be wiser for the city to instead spend this money on mitigating the effects of actual rainier days, floods, and rising seas that already are a new normal in the city’s climate changed future?

(Anand is Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on infrastructure, urbanism and environment. He is the author of Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai (2017) and The Promise of Infrastructure (2018). He is currently researching climate change, the sea, and the city. Terens is a Research Assistant in the Department of Anthropology, specializing in Urban Studies)

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