An animated image showing water rising and engulfing the coastline of Mumbai, India. the city is represented by its iconic sea link.
Indian cities by the coastline could be particularly impacted by the effects of climate change by 2050. Illustrations by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

Mental Health

An Ecological and Mental Health Pandemic: How Mumbai and Kolkata Will Be Impacted by Climate Change in 2050

'These people simply do not have a choice. In fact, things are getting worse with every passing year.'

One of the few positives to have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic has been reduced human activity. According to a study in the journal Nature Climate Change, this past April we observed a 17% drop in the amount of carbon dioxide generated by humans as compared to last year, taking us to 2006 emission levels. Sadly, this reduction is unlikely to last, as global emissions bounced right back up after a similar drop following the financial crisis in 2008. Humanity is staring at a mass extinction in the face, and it’s not because of the novel coronavirus.

The most common policy cited around combating global climate change is The Paris Agreement, which primarily aims at stopping a temperature increase by more than 2 degree Celsius. According to NASA, that level of rise will increase the world’s water deficit twofold, leading to a large drop in wheat and maize harvests. Wheat is eaten by 2.5 billion people in 89 countries. The future from Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” where corn becomes one of the last sources of food for the entire planet isn’t as unrealistic as some other parts of the film.

The bigger problem, however, is that most countries will miss their Paris Agreement pledges by a long shot. We’re looking at a global future where temperature will rise more than 2 degree Celsius. Think of it like this: the difference between a temperature rise of 1.5 degree Celsius and 5 degree Celsius is the same as the difference between our reality and the last ice age. During the latter, large parts of the world, including Canada, parts of the United States and most of Europe were covered in sheets of ice.

The Global Climate Risk Index “analyzes to what extent countries and regions have been affected by impacts of weather-related loss events” such as storms, floods and heatwaves. According to the latest edition of the report, India is the fifth most vulnerable of 181 countries to the effects of climate change.

Extreme weather events like floods and cyclones are becoming all too commonplace on Indian coastlines and these are only increasing in frequency and intensity.

The country saw the highest number of deaths in the world due to extreme weather conditions in 2018, while going through one of the longest ever recorded heatwaves in the same year. A Government of India report predicts that by 2050, 360 million Indians across 142 cities will be exposed to extreme heat.

Additionally, this year alone, the eastern and western coastline of India experienced some of their strongest cyclones in decades. Mumbai escaped Cyclone Nisarga, but on the opposite coast, parts of Kolkata were ravaged by Cyclone Amphan, claiming at least 84 lives. It was the first super cyclone in the Bay of Bengal in over 20 years, and one of the strongest in its history. Extreme weather events like floods and cyclones are becoming all too commonplace on Indian coastlines and according to the Indian Meteorological Department, these are only increasing in frequency and intensity.

So, what will it be like in 2050 living in Mumbai and Kolkata, two of the most populous cities in India, and currently home to over 35 million people?

Ecological Meltdown

An illustration showing the impact of climate change on Mumbai and Kolkata's ecology. The Gateway of India is struggling to stay affloat, the boats are drowning, and Kolkata's Howra bridge looks over in the distance.

A recent report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global climate science body, stated that sea level in India will rise by 38 centimetres (cm) by 2050. This means extreme events such as tropical cyclones, heavy rain, floods and extreme waves would become as casual as a drive to the city’s famed Marine Drive. Kolkata is one of the other cities mentioned in the report to be severely impacted. The UN report elaborates that an increase in sea levels will “inundate low lying areas, drown coastal marshes and wetlands, erode beaches, exacerbate flooding and increase the salinity of rivers, bays and groundwater. [An] increase in temperature will lead to an increase in rainfall intensity and frequency.”

So, apart from the water coming in from the Arabian Sea, Mumbaikars will have an increased amount of water raining down on them too.

What would this mean for its residents?

“A large part of the city would be affected, because the design standard of the city is only able to withstand 25 mm per hour rainfall,” Amarnath Giriraj, research group leader of Water Risks and Development Resilience at Colombo-based International Water Management Institute, told Re:Set.

“If the projected temperature rise happens, and we’re already seeing its effects in more storms, and changed weather patterns in the southwest monsoon, the maximum rainfall we’re seeing will increase by 15% to 20%. This will only increase with time, and we don’t know if the city is prepared,” he added.

“Who cares about communities like fishermen?”

According to the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, flooding-prone spots in the city increased from 40 from six years ago to 273 last year. These include areas in the upscale neighbourhood of Worli, Parel, Dadar to Juhu, Santacruz and even the city’s airport.

“Cities are talking about increased rainfall due to rising temperatures but so much of their infrastructure is of the colonial era and not modernized to meet the expected increase in rainfall,” Giriraj explained.

Vulnerable communities like the city’s fisherpeople will be most adversely affected.

“Who cares about communities like fishermen? Who cares if one or 10 million people perish out of 1.3 billion?,” Professor Binod Khadria, former Professor of Economics, Education and Migration at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and co-editor of the World Migration Report, told Re:Set. “These are people who are important during elections, but their collective interest only shows up in policy when it comes to debates. Assam is flooded year after year. The World Bank sends its grants but what is being done to prevent the floods?”

Both the IPCC and Climate Central reports conclude that large parts of Mumbai could be underwater by 2050 if not for major policy intervention.

An illustration with a statistic on the impact of climate change on Mumbai's population. Nearly 50% of the city's people are vulnerable to the economic effects of climate change.

The situation for Kolkata is even more precarious, especially its eastern fringe. According to a World Bank study, more than 40% of the city’s area and 47% of its population would be affected by climate change. Like Mumbai, lack of proper drainage will be the city’s downfall.

“We can keep saying climate change will happen, but for cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, things like improved drainage and storing of flood water have to be made a priority in an adaptation plan,” Giriraj said.

The prediction model used in the World Bank study doesn’t look at a 2 or 3 degree Celsius rise, as it takes an optimistic outcome of a 1.2 to 1.8 degree Celsius increase in the city by 2050 in addition to a nominal increase in rainfall. It focuses on eastern Kolkata, because it has seen a rapid increase in building of residential complexes compared to the rest of the city. Six of the most vulnerable areas of the city run alongside the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass, a near 30 kilometer stretch connecting Bidhannagar in the north-east to Rajpur Sonarpur. According to India’s premier real estate portal, the stretch is “an emerging realty hub in Kolkata…with improved infrastructure, and commercial establishments alongside, it has evolved as a coveted destination with residential developments from trusted builders and developers.”

A World Bank report found that these areas would be the locations most susceptible to cyclones and flooding.

“Extreme rainfall will increase with global warming and hence, eventually, people won’t be able to live in these low-lying areas.”

According to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study, if the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions continues, Kolkata will overtake even Mumbai by 2070 to have the most people exposed to coastal flooding in the world, totaling to over 14 million.

This isn’t even the worst of the city’s problems, which will also witness intense heat waves killing thousands, like it did in 2015.

“Urban areas are 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer than rural areas and global warming will add another 2 degrees. Mumbai and Kolkata will become more hot and humid and air-conditioners will become a necessity,” Jayaraman Srinivasan, a scientist at Divecha Centre for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science told Re:Set.

According to climate scientist Chirag Dhara, as explained here, “The dry heat of Delhi or Hyderabad is not as physiologically taxing as the humid heat of Kolkata, Chennai or Mumbai. The 2015 India/Pakistan heat waves turned out as deadly as they did because there was a simultaneous spike in both temperature and humidity, events that were magnified by global warming.”

2,500 people died in those heat waves across the country. According to recent research, such heat waves will occur every year in Kolkata if the temperature increases even by 1.5 degree Celsius.

“It’ll become a cycle of increased emissions, which would also start impacting health, as workers in factories and in farms cannot have air conditioners and hence the productivity of workers will reduce,” Srinivasan said. “Extreme rainfall will increase with global warming and hence, eventually, people won’t be able to live in these low-lying areas.”

Imagine living in parts of these cities. Water inside your homes from above and below during the monsoon season, amidst the constant threat of deadly cyclones. And in times of respite, heatwaves which will kill thousands.

An illustrated image depicting the economic impact of climate change on Mumbai and Kolkata. Local shops are shut, the GDP is falling, and buildings are collapsing to rubble as an old woman looks on.

Economic Impact

As we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, the economical health of a region instantly evaporates in the aftermath of an extreme event. It could be even worse if the event is recurring.

With flash floods expected to increase in intensity by 25% in 2050, people living on the city’s coastlines are in trouble. According to a 2008 study, almost a fourth of Mumbai comprises low-lying areas, home to underprivileged residents. They account for nearly 50% of the city’s population and are the most vulnerable group to the economic effects of climate change. A more conservative estimate in the study projects that 40% of the city’s population will be affected because floods and salt-water intrusion will affect the structural stability of high-rise buildings.

The study then tries to forecast damage caused by a 38 cm rise in sea level by 2050. It also accounts for disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost due to diseases like malaria, diarrhea and leptospirosis, which are expected to be the major illnesses caused by the changing climate of the city. According to the World Health Organization, a DALY is calculated as, “The sum of years of potential life lost due to premature mortality and the years of productive life lost due to disability.”

The study concludes that cumulative costs of displacement due to extreme events of flooding of low-lying areas, material damage, mortality costs, and DALYs lost between 2005–2050 will be over 12,000 crores (a shade over $1.5 billion USD). It adds that the cost for building foundation damages and loss of tourism will take the total damage to over 35 lakh crore (nearly $500 billion USD). That is nearly 50% more than the GDP of the entire state of Maharashtra in 2018-19. According to a 2013 World Bank report, the city will have to bear the fifth highest cost of any in the world due to overall damage caused by floods.

For Kolkata, the situation isn’t too different. The previously cited World Bank Study estimates that in Kolkata the “additional climate change-related damages from a one in 100-year flood to be $790 million (USD) in 2050.” This includes “damages to property, losses in the commercial, industrial, and health care sectors, and damages to roads and the transportation and electricity infrastructures.” The research emphasized that these should be viewed as lower bound estimates.

Editor’s note: A one in 100-year flood doesn’t mean a flood which happens once in a 100 years. There’s a small probability that such an extreme event could occur every year. For example, Houston in the United States has recently seen three one-in-500 year floods in a row. As climate changes the frequency and intensity of extreme events, we will keep learning more.

An illustration with a statistic on the impact of climate change on the Indian economy. Rising temperatures will cost the city over ₹3,50,00,00,00,000, in damages by 2050.

An important factor is that all these costs will be incurred in a failing global economy. According to a paper published by the Department of Economics at the University of Berkeley, on an average every 1 degree Celsius of warming costs up to 1.2% of the global GDP. “If future adaptation [of infrastructure to global warming] mimics past adaptation, unmitigated warming is expected to reshape the global economy by reducing average global incomes roughly 23% by 2100 and widening global income inequality, relative to scenarios without climate change,” the paper says.

With nearly everything shut down, COVID-19, which has rendered 14 crore people jobless, is expected to contract the Indian economy by 6%. The projections in the Berkely paper paint a scenario nearly four times worse.

The sheer scale of that level of economic carnage is difficult to comprehend. These losses, as with COVID-19, will be borne by those who are already economically vulnerable. A recent Oxfam report stated, “63 million [Indians] are pushed into poverty because of healthcare costs every year,” which is “almost two people every second.” These are healthcare costs without an immediate climactic apocalypse.

We can even look at how increased temperatures have affected income inequality up to now. A recent Stanford University study found that from 1961 to 2010 after decades of global warming, India’s economy is now 31% smaller than it would have been had its temperatures not risen. Additionally, the study stated, “the gap between the group of nations with the highest and lowest economic output per person is now approximately 25 percent larger than it would have been without climate change.”

A 2015 study predicts increased farmer suicides because of prolonged droughts brought upon by climate change.

India, according to this study, would’ve been a richer country, and with less income inequality if it hadn’t been for the impact of the changing climate we’ve witnessed thus far.

“Climate change is already changing people’s livelihood in Mumbai and Kolkata,” Giriraj explained. “This year, for example, we’ve seen exceptional rainfall in Mumbai where the city already received 82% of its rainfall in June. We’ve seen increasing thunderstorms in many parts of the country, yet agricultural parts of the state see constant droughts. This is making farmers in Maharashtra change the crops they sow. That will alter the supply of specific crops, which will affect prices, which will then change our diets and how we behave.”

The impact on the agriculture and animal husbandry sector does not end there. According to an earlier Mumbai study, titled, “Economic impact of climate change on Mumbai, India,” the heat stress in the city, in addition to its human population, will impact its cattle. They are already sensitive to heat stress, which can potentially cause decreased milk production, poor reproductive performance, and sometimes even death. The heat stress can negatively impact the city’s milk supply chains. This is a difficult proposition to handle considering Mumbai is part of the state where 41% of samples of milk collected were found to be inadequate for human consumption.

Food is the single largest expense for poor urban households, and frequent extreme weather events will have a large impact on food security of Indian households. An added cause for concern is the nutrient deficiencies already caused by increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Concentration of zinc, iron and protein was found to be reduced in wheat and rice grains. Every year, nearly two million people die of zinc and iron deficiencies worldwide.

Additionally, climate change won’t just impact our physiology. Mental health studies regarding the subject are novel, but the ones conducted are projecting a grim outlook. A 2015 study predicts increased farmer suicides because of prolonged droughts brought upon by climate change. India has already seen a spate of farmer suicides over the past few years and according to a Government of India report, 10,655 farmers and cultivators died in 2017 in the country. Over the past few decades, nearly 60,000 deaths have been linked to rising temperatures due to climate change.

Additionally, the study notes, “increased frequency of disasters with climate change can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder, and depression.” The study concludes that climate migration and increased rates of physical illness can lead to accumulated physiological stress.

An American Psychological Association study from 2014 found that from entire populations, women, children, and older adults are most likely to be affected by  the “psychological impacts of climate change.” A survey done by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of California of nearly two million found that women in America are as much as 60% more likely to suffer from climate change induced mental illness when compared with men.

Suicides will rise too. A 2019 Stanford study concluded that climate change is going to increase the already rampant problem of deaths by suicide in the United States and Mexico. A 1 degree Celsius rise in average monthly temperature could cause a 0.7% and 2.1% spike in monthly suicide rates in the United States and Mexico respectively. The result would be thousands of additional deaths.

Climate Migration

An illustrated image depicting climate change induced migration, with women walking over drought stricken land.

This is not a far-flung look into the distant future, because climate migration is already happening. According to The World Migration Report (2020), 2.7 million Indians were displaced due to tropical storms and floods in 2018, among the highest number of climate displacements in the world. The report adds that in the last 10 years, annual new disaster displacements outnumbered new displacements caused by conflict and violence globally.

With extreme weather events becoming commonplace, Mumbai residents, especially those living in temporary shelters, will likely be the first to be hit by flooding. Then, as the water makes it way upwards and meets an already overstuffed sewage system from extra rains, those living in low-lying areas in the city, mainly its western suburbs will be hit. A World Bank report titled, “Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration” predicts a drastic reduction in the population density of the city by 2050.

“People won’t leave permanently. They’ll go back to their homes then come back, like it has happened with COVID-19,” Khadria, co-editor of the report, explained. “Rise in temperature are slow rises, that’s why the impact on migration would be less visible. These will increase when we start seeing sudden manifestations of climate change, like earthquakes, or extreme rainfalls. Displacement will then happen instantly.”

The cause and effect of these extreme events will be devastating. According to the previously mentioned 2008 report on Mumbai, the impact of climate change could be very severe on human health. It would manifest itself into three major illnesses — diarrhoea, malaria and leptospirosis.

“Besides the frequent disease outbreaks,” the study adds, “heat stress caused by the rising mercury would also affect the workforce of the city. Episodes of heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke would affect the population, primarily the large poor section of the society.”

It’s a vicious cycle, because the heat stress would only weaken the human immune system, which would further increase susceptibility to diseases.

“The people who came to Mumbai for jobs will move away from the city,” Khadria told Re:Set. “We won’t know where because we don’t know which cities will be best ready, but it will put pressure on resources of neighbouring cities.”

“These people simply do not have a choice. In fact, things are getting worse with every passing year.”

The Groundswell report explains that Mumbai is one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to this displacement because it will also witness internal migration till 2030. Farmers from climate change induced drought stricken areas in Maharashtra are expected to flock to the city in search of work. The World Bank predicts that the GDP per capita of these agricultural districts is expected to shrink 10% by 2050.

A report by Action Aid highlighted the gender aspect of this migration, as when these farmers go to cities for work, women in their families would have to double up and add farming to their already burgeoning load of unpaid household labour and childcare.

A 2016 study projects that even a non-extreme global warming like 2 degree Celsius will cause a disproportionate evacuation from the tropics. This could lead to a concentration of population in tropical margins and the subtropics, increasing their population densities by 300% or more.

Of Mumbai and Kolkata, the former is actually the lucky one, because the water of West Bengal is rising particularly faster than the global average. Apart from the heatwaves, the cyclones and the flooding, Kolkata residents will have to face their unique issues due to global warming: The Royal Bengal Tiger.

Tiger-human conflict is not new in the Sundarbans. The area is one of the largest deltas in the world, consisting of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal, spread across India and Bangladesh. Many fishermen are killed by tigers every year in the region, and the attacks have been increasing for years. Rising sea levels over time have inundated a large part of the Sundarbans, a staggering 170 square kilometres (nearly the size of Kolkata) from 1973 to 2010, according to one study. Add to this a lack of employment opportunities elsewhere, fishermen on the coasts have to enter deeper and deeper areas of the delta, exposing them to tigers who are getting tired of the increasing level of salt in the seawater of the area. It’s a collision course with no end. There are entire villages of ‘tiger widows.’

Many of these people trying to escape are going to Kolkata in search of better opportunities. Haimanti Pakrashi, a teacher at a Kolkata school, published a study of migration patterns of five villages in the Sundarbans, titled “Transformation from being peasants to Climate Refugees.”

She observed that in addition to climate change, residents are leaving the area due to a lack of “industrial and infrastructural development, and abject poverty.”

“These people simply do not have a choice. In fact, things are getting worse with every passing year,” she wrote.

With more and more people looking for jobs outside, human trafficking too is increasing in the region. The number of trafficked women in West Bengal rose to 31,299 in 2018, from 24,937 just two years earlier. According to this report, “The traffickers take advantage of the situation, pose as job recruiters, or use local unemployed poor men to lure girls away with the false promise of marriage. Once abducted, the girls are sold into prostitution, some end up as domestic help and are abused…”

The Indian Sundarbans is home to 4.4 million people (Census, 2011) all of whom might become climate refugees by 2050, a process that has already started.

An illustration with a statistic on the impact of climate change on the Indian economy. The country's economy is now 31% smaller than it would have been had its temperatures not risen.

The predictions are half as dire for Kolkata city. A 2015 report says that more than 10.8 million people living in Kolkata and its suburbs (population as of 2011 census) will be flooded out if warming doesn’t stop at 2 degree Celsius. Even if we do hit the 2 degree mark, 5.6 million people, around a quarter of the people living in Kolkata and its suburbs will be rendered homeless.

According to a paper on the subject, these Kolkata residents will go looking for jobs in other metropolitan areas of the country such as Delhi, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Pune and Hyderabad. The internal migration will put pressure on these cities which are currently trying to cope with a burgeoning population. Now, they’ll have to brace themselves for migrants looking for a safe haven away from the coasts.

According to Khadria, the only way to manage such levels of migration is to survey the vulnerable communities and include all levels of government including municipal and local village governing bodies in the process. He emphasized that an overarching plan doesn’t work and it is imperative to carry out advocacy, training, education and awareness campaigns alongside properly funded schemes to weed out corruption.

“Policy making is too low in India,” Khadria told Re:Set. “We keep giving examples of European countries which are doing well in that regard, but we should compare ourselves with countries like Bangladesh whose topography is similar to ours. European countries are like the moon to us.”

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An Ecological and Mental Health Pandemic: How Mumbai and Kolkata Will Be Impacted by Climate Change in 2050