Surat: Vipul Tejani runs a small factory in Surat, the diamond capital of India which in the past 15 years has been hit by massive floods, rising sea levels, and even the plague.
His workshop is tucked in a warren of small diamond cutting businesses and textile mills employing thousands of workers. Like three-quarters of the city, it was flooded by muddy waters reaching two storeys high in 2006.
But in Surat, someone like Tejani does not see himself as another disaster statistic. With a smile on his face, he says: “I am not planning to shift from here.”
Just next to India’s west coast, Surat is learning to live with big upheavals and now wants to become a front-runner in preparing for the impact of climate change in a country with fast-rising emissions but generally low environmental awareness.
GPS technology is being used to map the city of 4 million, which will enable rescuers to pinpoint where relief should be sent and whom to evacuate first if the flood waters come rushing. Flood warnings appear on LCD screens on the streets.
Every year, an action plan is prepared ahead of monsoon season. Rescue boats are kept at the ready at fire stations. Families are trained on basics such as what medicines to keep in the house or where to take vulnerable people like pregnant women.
“Whether it’s in government or in the business community, there’s a remarkably high level of engagement,” said Ashvin Dayal, the Asia managing director for the Rockefeller Foundation.
“The 2006 flood really consolidated in the minds of the citizens of the city the need for action. That’s not something you see commonly across most cities in India”, he added.
The US-based foundation chose Surat as one of a handful of Asian cities in which to fund adaptation studies. Successful projects could then inspire other cities at risk.
It joined hands with a local business lobby, the consulting film TARU in a climate umbrella group that has its own website and Facebook page.
The stakes on adaptation are high for India, seen as one of the nations most at risk from a warmer planet.
But change may not be easy with its rowdy democracy of more than 1.1 billion and daunting development statistics despite India’s global economic rise. Around 40% live on less than $1.25 a day and more than half are dependent on agriculture.
Suruchi Bhadwal of the New Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute, said that the country must top up existing government schemes to keep pace with escalating climate risks.
“In terms of climate change adaptation, there’s not much happening in India,” she said, adding: “Implementation and hardcore active research is missing.”
Who should foot the bill for adaptation became a global debate ahead of the December global climate talks.
Climate change will likely increase the intensity and frequency of extreme events the likes of which hit Surat, and leave India more vulnerable to floods, heatwaves, disease and erratic monsoon rains upon which its farmers rely.
A government report said a 1 metre sea-level rise would flood nearly 6,000 sq km of India, which could cause significant population movements among 63 million people in low-lying areas—roughly the population of Britain.
Surat could become a test case for India, the world’s fourth largest emitter. Jyoti Parikh, who sits on the prime minister’s climate change council, visited the city to scout out what lessons can be applied on a national level.
“In some sense, it could become a laboratory or a best practice model for us,” she said.
Surat’s highest tide on record came in 2008, and rainfall on its flood plain is predicted to increase in the coming decades. Tidal pulls cause creeks in Surat to surge in areas populated by slum dwellers unable to live elsewhere.
One such slum is Kamrunagar, built on a sloping hill down to a filthy pool. On one small shop, one can see a faded red line and a date, one of many such markers dotted around the city which record the water level rise of particular floods.
“We want to shift over there to protect ourselves from the floods,” said Sheikh Afsana Sheikh Yusuf, as children run around her in the slum and a small fire burns in a nearby skip.
Over there is a government-funded block of flats next to the slum, built on stilts as a first defence against water level surges, one of many to shift thousands from flood-prone areas.
Surat has come a long way from 1994, when poor flood cleanup caused a global health scare with an outbreak of deadly pneumonic plague that prompted hundreds of thousands to flee the city.
Favourable comparisons are now made between the handling of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and the 2006 flood in the much more populous Surat, where seven times as many people, 3.5 million, were affected according to the Surat government.
“The city was brought back to normal in two weeks’ time, where it took months to bring back New Orleans,” said Kamlesh Yagnik, the group chairman of the Southern Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry, part of the climate group.
“It tells us we are equal for flood management,” Yagnik said.