Farmers, drivers and street food sellers in Guwahati are the occupations most vulnerable to climate change impacts in the northeastern city, while doctors are the least vulnerable, found a study that blends society and science for clues that can aid urban planning.
Global climatic models and climatic predictions fail to explain the impacts on a very small scale, challenging planners and decision-makers in providing location- and ecology-specific solutions. Plugging this gap by incorporating people’s voices – like this study by IIT-Guwahati has done – is especially necessary for cities like Guwahati that have rapidly and silently expanded, barging into eco-sensitive areas.
Guwahati is in Assam – the state most vulnerable to climate change in the Indian Himalayan range – and has quietly but steadily expanded around the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries with its metropolitan area subsuming surrounding hills, the network of water bodies (locally called beels) and forests.
It is on the receiving end of landslides, floods, erosion, and earthquakes that endanger the lives and livelihoods of those exposed to these events and other climate-associated factors amid unbridled construction activities.
In November 2019, the city also saw its residents hit the streets in protest against the Assam government’s decision to cut over 300 old-growth trees for the construction of a proposed bridge over the Brahmaputra river connecting North and South Guwahati.
Based on scores of three indices (Livelihood Vulnerability Index or LVI, IPCC models, and Climate Vulnerability Index or CVI), the study finds that farmers are the most vulnerable occupational sector followed by drivers and street food sellers.
Doctors were identified as the least vulnerable community and that was mainly because of their higher adaptive capacity, suggesting the importance of education and access to resources for adaptation to climate change.
“Our study factors in society and science in an urban setting and is unique for the region. Guwahati city has expanded rapidly and in a very quiet manner. There are cities like Guwahati that are in transition. Such livelihood vulnerability indices can help align the growth of cities in a manner beneficial to its most vulnerable,” said study author Sudip Mitra.
Mitra said the sensitivity of farmers towards climate change is linked to the climate sensitivity of agriculture as well as the mode in which they operate in Guwahati.
“For Guwahati, the lines between urban and rural areas are blurred. The limits of the city are not well defined as they are for a lot of other Indian cities. Many farmers from outside come to the city to sell their produce directly to the consumers. They often do this on a day to day basis which exposes them to extreme weather elements,” Mitra of IIT-Guwahati’s Centre for Rural Technology, told Mongabay-India.
However, long-term weather forecasts do not reach out to them precluding them from taking preventive measures, he said. “The adaptive capacity of farmers is also found to be less due to lack of income,” he observed.
Determining climate vulnerability of different sections of society
To gather data, the researchers quizzed 200 people ranging across sectors (construction, agriculture, medicine, transportation, among others) on their perception of the changing climate.
For instance, they were asked about changes in air and water quality, tree cover, intensity, and frequency of natural disasters, change in market trends, loss of life and property. The primary data was analysed to craft the three indices.
People in economic and market hubs (Paltan Bazaar, Uzan Bazaar, Pan Bazaar, Fancy Bazaar) and in areas that experience extreme climatic conditions such as flash floods (Ambari, Jalukbari, Khanapara, Chatribari) were surveyed.
“The vulnerability of any sector of the society can be reduced with the adoption of appropriate adaptation and/or mitigation measures. In the case of farmers, studies have shown that adoption of multiple agriculture practices, high yielding crops and access to climate-compatible agriculture technologies, climate information services have had far-reaching and positive impacts on yield, income and poverty reduction over time,” said Mitra.
Additionally, involvement in farm-related organisations such as farmer associations and climate field school could improve the resilience capacity of the farmers.
Among drivers deployed in Guwahati’s booming public transport system, heatstroke is common due to a lack of proper adaptive measures. Street food-sellers are also highly exposed to weather extremes.
“They do not face much of financial problems and some street food sellers are found to be highly educated, hence could undertake proper adaptive measures. However, the sensitivity of perishable item sellers was found to be high because they face market losses when produce such as fruits and vegetables, and fish spoil at a much faster rate during summer,” said Mitra.
Vendors and construction workers also experience market losses due to heat, flood, and extreme rainfall. These sudden events force vendors to move their shops to safer places. Urban floods also pose substantial risks to street vendors in terms of financial loss, the study said.
“In such situations, an integrated and well-developed drainage network could assist in developing adaptive capacity toward such events,” suggested Mitra, adding that urban planning needs to be shored up to meet the upcoming challenges.
India is a signatory to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and is committed to mainstreaming disaster risk reduction by investing in resilient infrastructure, urban planning, land use, etc. so as to not only reduce the risk of flooding but reduce the losses of lives and livelihoods in case it occurs.
Agreeing with the study findings Nandita Saikia, population studies expert, said the effort can be scaled up to include more people and their perceptions towards climate change.
“Proper environmental planning must be included in the urban plans so as to balance climate solutions and well-being of its residents. Such livelihood indices will come in handy for climate-smart urban planning,” Saikia of Jawaharlal Nehru University explained.
The master plan
In order to deal with rapid urbanisation and related urban issues, the state government prepared a Master Plan for Greater Guwahati in 1965 with a perspective for 1986. This was followed by the Modified Final Master Plan and Zoning Regulations for Guwahati in 1987. The master plan was finally entrusted to the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority for implementation with perspective 2001.
The plan has been subsequently revised with perspective 2025. The plan aims to conserve the city’s natural environment, to provide well distributed physical and social infrastructure, efficient space for economic activities including markets, affordable housing sans slum and land development.
“It is pertinent to add here that the city is sprawling outwards. A lot of these areas coming under the sprawl are significant natural features like natural wetlands, watershed areas, fragile hilly areas which are not fit for development. This becomes an important issue in light of the fact that the city faces frequent landslides and flooding during rainy seasons,” notes the report.
“In spite of the fact that the building bye-laws do exist, the absence of their mention in an important document like master plan and within the section on housing is a big gap. Also considering urban flooding as one of the detriments for the city, housing locations for future need to be taken into account in the planning stage itself,” it says.
The report further notes that if a city has to be slum-free, the housing needs of all the residents of the city including the poor would have to be planned and provided for during the allocation of housing stock. “In the absence of such an approach, slums would continue to be built in the hazardous and vulnerable locations in the city, ever-increasing the vulnerability of the residents to climate-related events and natural disasters.”
Could citizen movements push for climate policy implementation?
As an example, Rasel Hussain of Citizens’ Coordination Committee which led the recent protest against the proposed chopping of 300 trees, highlighted how the ecological degradation of the 40 sq km Deepor Beel, a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance has chipped away at the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers and fisherfolk. The actual water body area has shrunk to only about 10 square km, courtesy illegal settlements and development. The lake is a major stormwater basin of the Brahmaputra river and prevents flash floods.
A garbage-dumping yard abuts the margin of the Beel while a railway link on its southern boundary has fragmented the lake’s connectivity with Rani-Garbhanga Reserve Forest, a prominent elephant corridor.
“There are villages around the lake which supports the livelihood of fisherfolk and farmers. 50 years ago those villages were considered as rural area but as the city expanded, they are part of the city. There has been rapid construction and development resulting in ecological degradation depriving the villagers of their livelihoods. Poor government policies have not helped them,” Hussain told Mongabay-India.
Many of them have moved onto construction work and other occupations that expose them to climate hazards, said Hussain.
“But Guwahati residents are very much aware of climate issues and how deforestation and loss of water bodies affect them as a society. They have started protesting in recent years. We are not against development but we want the authorities to consult citizens. We hope the growing citizens’ movement will contribute to the implementation of policies and improved policies,” the environmentally-conscious Guwahati citizen added.
(This story was first published on Mongabay and has been republished with permission. The original article can be found here.)