Hill or city, urban planning cannot be an afterthought – Analysing the links between urban planning and disasters | 14th February 2023 | UPSC Daily Editorial Analysis

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What's the article about?

  • It talks about the link between poor urban planning and the increasing number of disasters (landslides and flooding) in urban areas.


  • GS1: Urbanization, their problems and their remedies;
  • GS3: Disaster and Disaster Management;
  • Prelims


  • Weather patterns are becoming more extreme as a result of climate change.
  • This has been reflecting extreme weather events such as high rainfall, cold and hot waves, etc.
  • This has also resulted in increased instances of disasters such as urban flooding and landslides.
  • But climate change is not the only reason; poor urban planning is also to blame.

Landslides and Urban Planning:

  • Land subsidence incidents in hilly urban India are becoming increasingly common.
  • An estimated 12.6% of India’s land area is prone to landslides, especially in Sikkim, West Bengal and Uttarakhand.
  • Urban policy is making this worse, according to the National Institute of Disaster Management (and highlighted in the National Landslide Risk Management Strategy, September 2019).
  • Construction in such a landscape is often driven by building bye-laws that ignore local geological and environmental factors.
  • Consequently, land use planning in India’s Himalayan towns and the Western Ghats is often ill-conceived, adding to slope instability.

Solutions to tackle landslide issues:

  • Creating credible databases:
    • This the first step toward enhancing urban resilience with regard to land subsidence.
    • The overall landslide risk needs to be mapped at the granular level.
    • The Geological Survey of India has conducted a national mapping exercise (1:50,000 scale, with each centimetre denoting approximately 0.5 km).
    • Urban policymakers need to take this further, with additional detail and localisation (1:1,000 scale).

Aizawl Case study:

  • Aizawl, Mizoram, is in ‘Seismic Zone V’, and built on very steep slopes.
  • An earthquake with a magnitude greater than 7 on the Richter scale would easily trigger over 1,000 landslides and cause large-scale damage to buildings.
  • But the city has developed a landslide action plan (with a push to reach 1:500 scale), with updated regulations to guide construction activities in hazardous zones.
  • The city’s landslide policy committee is cross-disciplinary in nature, seeking inputs from civic society and university students, with a push to continually update risk zones.

Gangtok Case study:

  • In Gangtok, Sikkim, the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham has helped set up a real-time landslide monitoring and early warning system, with sensors assessing the impact of rainfall infiltration, water movement and slope instability.
  • Limiting scale of infrastructure projects:
    • Areas with high landslide risk should not be allowed to expand large infrastructurepush to reduce human interventions and adhere to carrying capacity.
    • Further, any site development in hazardous zones needs assessment by a geologist (with respect to soil suitability and slope stability) and an evaluation of its potential impact on buildings that are nearby.
    • It may need corrective measures (retention walls), with steps to prohibit construction in hazardous areas.

Flooding and urban planning:

  • Seasonal rain is now increasing in intensity. Most of the urban areas are built over the natural flood plains of the rivers.
  • When planned townships are approved, with a distinct lack of concern for natural hazards, such incidents are bound to occur.
  • In Delhi, an estimated 9,350 households live in the Yamuna floodplains, while the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report of March 2022 has highlighted the risk Kolkata faces due to a rise in sea levels.
  • The combination of poor urban planning and climate change will mean that many of India’s cities could face devastating flooding.

Case studies:

  • In August 2019, Palava City (Phase I and II) in Dombivli, Maharashtra experienced heavy flooding, leaving residents stranded. The reason for the flooding soon became evident — the township, spread over 4,500 acres, was built on the flood plains of the Mothali river.
  • Floods in Panjim, Goa, in July 2021, led to local rivers swelling and homes being flooded, leaving urban settlements along the Mandovi affected. Again, urban planning was the issue; the city, built on marshlands, was once home to mangroves and fertile fields, which helped bolster its flood resilience.

Solutions to tackle flooding issues:

  • Urban planners will have to step back from filling up water bodies, canals and drains and focus, instead, on enhancing sewerage and stormwater drain networks.
  • Existing sewerage networks need to be reworked and expanded to enable wastewater drainage in low-lying urban geographies.
  • Rivers that overflow need to be desilted regularly along with a push for coastal walls in areas at risk from sea rise.
  • Greater spending on flood-resilient architecture (river embankments, flood shelters in coastal areas and flood warning systems) is necessary.
  • Protecting “blue infra” areas, i.e., places that act as natural sponges for absorbing surface runoff, allowing groundwater to be recharged, is a must.
  • As rainfall patterns and intensity change, urban authorities will need to invest in simulation capacity to determine flooding hotspots and flood risk maps.

Way Forward:

  • Urban India does not have to embrace such risks. Instead, cities need to incorporate environmental planning and enhance natural open spaces.
  • Urban master plans need to consider the impact of climate change and extreme weather.
  • Urban authorities in India should assess and update disaster risk and preparedness planning. Early warning systems will also be critical.
  • Finally, each city needs to have a disaster management framework in place, with large arterial roads that allow people and goods to move freely.

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