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Dispatch from the Field: Building Resilience in Surat

Surat is the most flood-prone city in the state of Gujarat, situated along the Tapi River in the west coast of India, about a 5-hour drive north of Mumbai. In 2006, flooding was so extreme that the overflowing city dam had to be released on an emergency basis, inundating 75% of the city with 20 feet of water. The flood affected 3.5 million people, especially women and children who were at greater risk of illness from contaminated water, including vector-borne diseases, and caused $4.5 billion worth of damage.

Known as the Diamond City, Surat’s commerce is built on cutting and polishing diamonds to more than 90% of the world market. It also produces 45% of textiles used throughout India. Flooding however, is an annual calamity, and life comes to a standstill whenever it occurs. Offices, schools, hospitals and many important institutions have been closed down when it became impossible to wade through the streets. All modes of transportation from rail and road have also been disrupted, stalling all imports and exports to and from major cities.

“The vulnerability of Surat will only be exacerbated and accelerated due to extreme weather events and rising sea levels”

The city faces annual flood risks not only from heavy rainfall, but also because of rapid urbanization. As embankments expand and new structures along both sides of the river are constructed, it becomes harder for water to safely discharge between the Tapi’s banks to its now narrower mouth. “The vulnerability of Surat will only be exacerbated and accelerated due to extreme weather events and rising sea levels,” said Kamlesh Yagnik, President of the South Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Secretary of the Surat Climate Change Trust during the 100 Resilient Cities launch at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand on August 5th. “In 2006, there was no respite time available for cities to respond to floods.”

The last couple of years, however, have been different from what Surat had come to expect. Since joining the Rockefeller Foundation’s Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) in 2008, they are not only learning best practices from other cities facing similar challenges but also bringing lessons back to test in their own waters. As one of ten cities in the network, Surat has developed a climate change resilience strategy, ensuring that they are better equipped to plan, finance, and implement timely interventions. These ongoing dialogues have already begun to translate into better dam management and coordination efforts with the community.

Towards a More Resilient City

Through ACCCRN, Surat has developed an end-to-end early warning system and, in 2011, formed a multi-stakeholder body, the Surat Climate Change Trust. Now, when the city dam approaches capacity, an early warning system is sounded and citizens learn via SMS starting 48 hours in advance of the release, which gives them enough time to respond and evacuate if necessary.

Flooding Asia

This unique collaboration has pulled together city authorities across various sectors from water management to urban development, as well as the private sector, to help direct agencies, improve coordination, and information flow. With 20% of the poor households residing along the river, many stand to benefit, and almost all households and industries are at lesser risk of livelihood and business disruptions.

Though the monsoon seasons of 2012 and 2013 had rainfall equal to 2006, Surat did not flood.

“In the last four years, we have strengthened the engagement and awareness of building urban climate change resilience among our citizens and various stakeholders,” Kamlesh explained proudly. The major result, recently, was the inclusion of a budget line specifically for climate change in the Surat Municipality budget for 2013-2014 that signals greater commitment and support for resilience-building actions.

More than 40 ACCCRN city projects are now underway in four countries – India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam – with the Rockefeller Foundation and partners gearing up to expand to Bangladesh and the Philippines in the next few months. ACCCRN, which brings together different partners ranging from government, environment think-tanks to non-profit groups, aims to build climate change resilience of cities in Asia. Through these efforts, cities will be able to ensure that there is a greater ability to respond to disasters and rebound quickly, minimizing the costs in terms of loss of life, damages to homes, and disruptions to businesses.

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