Delhi’s Climate Crisis: From Heatwaves to Floods, a City on the Brink

The summer heat in Delhi, India’s capital, has been unbearable, with temperatures soaring to near 50 degrees Celsius. This extreme heatwave, coupled with high humidity, has pushed the city to its limits. Public hospitals set up heat treatment wards, and the government reported 58 heatwave-related deaths in the first few weeks of June. However, the pendulum swung to the other extreme in late June, with heavy rainfall causing widespread flooding across the city. A canopy at the Delhi airport collapsed, resulting in a fatality, and ten more died in other parts of the city. The dramatic shift from a scorching heatwave to devastating floods highlights the unpredictable and increasingly severe nature of climate change in Delhi.

The first half of 2024 has been a harsh reality for the 21 million residents of Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR), which encompasses another 50 million people. The second half of the year doesn’t promise much respite, with the Met department predicting excessive rains in July and a wetter than usual monsoon season. This means more flooding for Delhi NCR. After the heatwave and floods, the air quality will deteriorate further, with a choking smog engulfing the city by the end of October. Air pollution is a major health concern, responsible for an estimated 12,000 deaths annually in Delhi, making it the city with the highest mortality rate in India due to air pollution. Scientists have begun leaving the city, and some residents are moving away to escape the worsening environmental conditions.

The crisis around air, water, and temperature is interconnected and demands a holistic approach. Delhi is projected to become the world’s most populous urban conglomeration by 2028, surpassing Tokyo. The city’s current experiences are likely just a preview of what’s to come. Global average temperatures have already exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and the future holds more intense rains and extended heatwaves. The current definition of a heatwave used by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) fails to capture the real impact of high humidity and warm nights, which exacerbate the heat stress on the human body. Experts argue that a new threshold based on humidity and nighttime temperatures is essential to accurately assess the severity of heatwaves and prepare cities accordingly.

Delhi’s geographical location and land-use practices amplify its environmental challenges. The city is situated in a semi-arid area, surrounded by intensively used land that exerts pressure on water availability and air quality. The concrete jungle contributes to the urban heat island effect, making Delhi hotter than surrounding areas. As a result, residents only experience about 60-80 days of liveable conditions annually. Despite being the seat of power, Delhi has not effectively collaborated with neighboring states to address the interconnected environmental issues. Water quality in the city has deteriorated, and productivity losses could force businesses and residents to relocate.

While Delhi has taken steps to improve air quality, these measures have been largely reactive and insufficient. Despite various initiatives, Delhi’s air quality remains alarmingly bad, ranking among the worst in the world. The city’s air quality is heavily impacted by stubble burning, vehicle emissions, and industrial activities. The World Health Organization’s recommended annual average PM 2.5 target of 5 micrograms per cubic meter is far exceeded in Delhi, which has recorded levels 20 times higher. The city’s reliance on emergency measures like the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) is not a sustainable solution.

Delhi must address the root causes of its environmental crisis. Unplanned growth, poorly designed buildings that trap heat, and inefficient water usage practices all contribute to the city’s vulnerability. Expanding the green belt, implementing water conservation measures, and promoting sustainable urban design principles are crucial to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Despite efforts to increase green cover, deforestation continues in various parts of the city, highlighting the need for stricter enforcement of environmental regulations.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi novel, *The Ministry for the Future*, serves as a stark warning about the dangers of climate change. Delhi’s current predicament is a stark reminder that the end of the world is not an abstract concept but a very real possibility if urgent action isn’t taken. As the city grapples with the consequences of climate change, it must move beyond short-term solutions and embrace a holistic approach to sustainable development. Failure to do so could result in an irreversible decline in the livability of the city, leaving its residents with a grim future.

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