`Cities should be hospitable and resilient`

Updated: Feb 25, 2013, 14:08 PM IST

Rahul Kumar/OneWorld South Asia

Dr Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio is an Associate Director at the Rockefeller Foundation, where her work includes developing initiatives regarding building resilience for poor and vulnerable people who will be affected by climate change. She was in India recently to attend the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit-2013 (DSDS) and spoke to OneWorld about how Indian cities are being made resilient to disasters and climate change.

OWSA: Tell us something about the resilient cities initiative and how did the Rockefeller Foundation start it?

Rumbaitis del Rio: The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCN) started in 2007-2008 and the Rockefeller Foundation was looking at the major forces in the world that were going to affect the lives of the poor and vulnerable people. That is a constituency that we focus on through our work and the themes of climate change and urbanization kept coming up. It was combining them that got us to look at the vulnerabilities that cities face regarding climate change. Cities too are as vulnerable as rural areas but are not getting the attention that rural areas and ecosystems are getting. So we started to think what to do differently in cities.

We particularly chose to focus on Asia because the greatest urban population is here; the greatest urban population on the coasts is here and the population most vulnerable to climate change impacts is here. Now, we are working in 10 cities in four countries - India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand - and plan to increase to more cities.

OWSA: Can you tell us about your initiatives in India?

Rumbaitis del Rio: We are currently working in three cities in India — Surat, Gorakhpur and Indore. We have recently expanded to include Shimla, Guwahati, Bhubaneshwar and Mysore. In each of these places we feel it is important to have a multi-stakeholder participatory process to gather information and knowledge from different sectors of society — CBOs, universities, training institutes, even the private sector and the chambers of commerce.

In Gorakhpur, we are working with the Gorakhpur Environmental Action Committee, and they bring in a number of partners as well. They are looking at world-level resilience planning. One of the things they found was that the water logging in the city of Gorakhpur, which is leading to a lot of suffering, health and environment impacts, is because of poor solid waste management. Now, they have set up a solid waste management system in one of the wards, which has effectively dealt with the water logging problem.

OWSA: Is the Rockefeller’s work in cities confined to doing research and gathering data or is it more than that?

Rumbaitis del Rio: It definitely goes beyond that. Many of the interventions done through this programme are applied in nature. For example, there is an early warning system that is being set up for floods in Surat. This involves many inter-state and municipal bodies working together; bringing in data on rainfall and watershed issues and how to take the flood warning data to slum dwellers using SMSes and other approaches. So, many of these are experiments and we are looking at what works and what does not.

OWSA: We see much emphasis being laid on technological solutions. What if we preserve the natural features — the rivers, lakes and forests? Would that not be enough to make our cities resilient and healthier?

Rumbaitis del Rio: Absolutely. There are two things here. What we need is a better storm drainage system. In some cases that will be true and in some other cases, there will be solutions that are less expensive but just as effective as they are community driven.

For example, in Gorakhpur, there is solid waste management by civil society organisations that has been an effective solution. The role of ecosystems is absolutely true and what we are doing in Indore is preserving water bodies that for centuries have been absorbing excess rainfall and storing it. For this we don’t need hardened infrastructure.

The third thing is the importance of building social relations and cohesion in a community and new relations that will allow you to respond in new ways. This reorients power dynamics, builds trust within communities and builds new pathways to solving problems by bringing people together. So, I think there is action at multiple levels that strengthens resilience.

OWSA: You are looking at technological interventions, strengthening infrastructure and preserving nature and, all of this has to work for people and society. Can you share more examples.

Rumbaitis del Rio: Apart from Gorakhpur, another example is Indore regarding water use. People are using drinking quality of water for irrigation of gardens and that is unacceptable in a place where not everyone has clean water to drink. So, how do we start to experiment with ways for being more rational and more conservative with our water resources so that we have these for the long term.

OWSA: To what extent are the Indian cities habitable or resilient?

Rumbaitis del Rio: Certainly, there are challenges here. There is a lot more to be done, to be resilient in the long-term and in the short-term and be more prepared for disasters. We are investing in early warning systems, even competitions in land-use planning and city expansions. I think there is a lot of innovation happening in India and it is about unlocking some of the potential that is already there. Let me give an example – Surat is a good case study for that. The city was catastrophically flooded in 2006 and it actually bounced back pretty quickly.

What they have done since then is to have a campaign before the monsoon season, clean-up the storm drains and there’s been extensive preparedness on what to do in advance of flooding. The flooding is caused by releases from a dam and now there are electronic billboards in the city that give the level of the dam and an alert if an emergency possible release happens.