New Delhi: When Ahmedabad became the first city in South Asia to develop a heat action plan in 2013, the initiative snowballed into a national effort involving 30 other cities. Several of them also appointed a resilience officer for the first time.

Many of these efforts are nascent and it is too preliminary to judge the effect that they could have. However, these steps have long been overdue in view of the environmental weak spots of Indian cities because of the extreme impacts of climate change over the past few years.

Apart from urban heat waves, which are expected to be severe because of a hotter-than-expected summer this year, many cities have also witnessed large-scale floods—more than 20 since 2000.

“We were not that conscious about the impacts of climate change or the need for eco-friendly alternatives even five years ago," said Chetan Vaidya, former director, National Institute of Urban Affairs. However, with the government deciding to quantify environmental sustainability for the first time as a parameter in its Liveability Index of 116 cities, more steps are likely to be taken in this direction, he said.

“The first step is to identify the cities that are at maximum risk so that a mitigation plan can be created. Cities located near coastal areas have higher probability of being more affected by any climate change-induced disaster. We can expect that natural hazards, be they extreme rainfall or urban flooding, would increase in coming years. So it’s time we made our cities climate resilient," Vaidya said.

Researchers like him point out India has a unique opportunity to get it right since it is at an early phase of urbanization, with two-thirds of urban built-up area of the mid-2030s yet to be built.

Ongoing government programmes such as the Smart City Mission mandate targets such as meeting at least 10% of a city’s energy requirement from solar, 100% reuse of waste water, replacement of all street lighting with energy efficient LED bulbs, and a greater emphasis on walking and cycling. Unless these ambitious targets translate to real change on the ground, cities will continue to be precarious in the face of any environmental flux.

“A strategic plan needs to be put in place to manage the energy and water needs first while developing green cities," said Maharaj Pandit, professor, department of environmental science, Delhi University.

“We have to shift to renewable sources of energy. It would be suicidal to keep depending on traditional sources of energy. A strategic plan needs to be put into place to solve the energy problem and regulate the use of water while developing cities. Existing housing policies and permissions to build new houses should also be reviewed with environmental concerns in mind," said Pandit.