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Chronicle of a disaster foretold

In another 60 years, Calcutta will be the most vulnerable city in the world with respect to climate change, claimed a report released at a United Nations climate conference in Bali in 2007.

It was followed by Mumbai and Dhaka. The prediction about Calcutta looks likely to come true. The initial findings from a World Bank-supported study on climate change impact on Calcutta, presented at a Bangkok conference recently by the state’s chief environment officer, Debal Roy, identifies the reasons that may lead to the city’s collapse. The study lists:

■ High population density (almost 25,000 per sq km in the Calcutta corporation area)

■ Construction on reclaimed wetlands

■ Incomplete drainage network

■ Presence of industries with high pollution potential like tanneries and secondary lead smelting and galvanising

■ Low road space

■ Inadequate treatment facility for solid and liquid waste;

■ Presence of hazardous installations in the city such as mobile phone towers.

Natural factors have been listed too, such as:

● The occurrence of several cyclonic storms after the monsoons (showing increasing frequency over the years)

● The rise of the bed of the Hooghly because of silt deposition, which is being aggravated by the gradual lessening of fresh water flow from upstream

● The city’s proximity to the coast (it’s 180 km away)

● The fact that the city is connected by a major river to the sea. The analysis of data over the last 50 years shows that the groundwater level in the city has depleted consistently, while saline water has entered the city’s water-table.

But above all, the study mentions the presence of a large slum population (nearly 50 lakh) living under severe conditions, which faces the greatest risk.

Urban environment expert Tapas Ghatak, who was involved with the project, says that the explosive urban growth in low-lying areas where water collects easily, such as in Behala or near Kalyani, over the past three decades has not only put this huge population at the mercy of natural disasters, but also impacted the natural drainage of the city.

It is no coincidence that most of these people belong to the low-income bracket. “If one takes a close look at the analysis, it seems as if by design the poorer people living in greater Calcutta are most vulnerable with respect to all kinds of climatic extremes,” said an expert associated with the analysis.

A few “strengths” of Calcutta were identified by the study as well.

The all-weather underground Metro railway network in the city, the natural sewage treatment facility in the East Calcutta Wetlands that does not require any energy and the mangroves in the Sunderbans are stated to be key warriors against extreme natural calamities. But the strengths are under threat, too.

“It is a pity that the key strengths of the city, such as the East Calcutta Wetlands or the Sunderbans are being systematically weakened by the actions of a group of individuals with vested interests, more often than not being supported by the government’s inaction,” an environmentalist said.

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