Gujarat city on Indias west coast is preparing to cope with twin disasters brought on by rapid growth and global warming

According to the climate change experts, it is only a matter of time. The city of Surat (population 4.5 million), in the state of Gujarat on the west coast of India, will soon be exposed to recurrent flooding, with the risk of malaria and dengue fever epidemics in its aftermath. It also faces higher temperatures, which may force companies to relocate. So its citizens are planning for twin disasters that rapid urban development and global warming bring in their wake.

In 2008 Surat, which owes its success to the textile, diamond and petrochemical industries, was one of the pioneer members of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (Acccrn) set up by theRockefeller Foundation. It now receives technical and financial assistance to identify threats and test solutions. “Cities are where the interplay of climate risk and poverty lead to the direst consequences,” the Foundation warns on its website.

After coping with the challenges of rapid development and efforts to reduce poverty, Indian cities must learn to be resilient. By 2030 they will produce 70% of the country’s wealth and be home to 590 million inhabitants. Earlier this year a report by the Delhi-based Energy Resources Institute predicted that failure to adapt to climate change would lead to economic loss and social damage, particularly among the most vulnerable.

But several features could make Surat a model for the future. “The municipal corporation is stable and there is overall consensus about climate-related threats. The business community is involved, because it realises better than anyone how much it could lose,” says Mahesh Rajasekar, who heads the Taru Leading Edge consultancy that is framing the city’s resilience strategy. Surat is already used to flooding. In 2006, three-quarters of its surface area was flooded, resulting in losses totalling hundreds of millions of dollars. Its vulnerability is due to its location at the mouth of the Tapi river, fed by a drainage basin covering 65,000 sq km.

Surat also ranks fourth worldwide for the speed of its development; the population almost doubled between 2001 and 2011. Rapid urbanisation, along much of the Tapi, has exacerbated the risk of flooding, blocking any outlet for runoff. “Planners don’t even have the time to think ahead; buildings go up before the city’s administrative borders have even been extended,” Rajasekar explains.

With hotter weather, the monsoon is shorter and rainfall heavier, raising the risk of severe flooding. Surat has little option but to anticipate, in the hope of limiting the damage.