Kolkata a city on the brink of climate disaster – infotweaks

On this trip, in the era of global warming, I found a city at profound risk. Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, now faces more intense and more frequent storms, cyclones, river tides and floods. Plus, its hot, muggy days are getting hotter and muggier: in mid-June, when I was there, the heat index, a measure of temperature and humidity, peaked at 45 degrees Celsius, or 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

More upsetting to Basu, it didn’t have to be this way. Kolkata had natural defences: the mighty Ganges to the west, wetlands to the east, all emptying into the mangrove-rich delta region known as the Sundarbans and out to the Bay of Bengal. The city’s lakes and creeks could swallow the rains. The soft clay soil, used by the city’s sculptors to create figures of revered Hindu gods, could hold groundwater.

So they packed up and moved to Kolkata, the closest big city, joining the ranks of the most vulnerable: the city’s poor. Now, they live in houses made of bamboo and tin, in neighbourhoods where the drains back up in the monsoon and you have to hitch up your sari to wade through the filthy, stinking floodwaters. Kolkata – once a city of empire, then a city of jazz, then a city synonymous with destitution – sits in a saucer, sloping down from the Ganges to the wetlands and eventually out to the Bay of Bengal, roughly 90 miles away.

I went to a neighbourhood perched on the edge of the Adi Ganga. Inside the brick and tin houses it is blazing hot, and so the neighbourhood women sit in the narrow lanes, combing their children’s hair or washing lunch pots at the public tap. I asked them about the rainy season. A rainy day in Kolkata, India, where storms have become more frequent and more intense. Photograph: Saumya Khandelwal/New York Times

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), if the current trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions continues, by 2070 Kolkata is projected to have more people exposed to coastal flooding than any city in the world. Among cities facing growing flood-damage losses between now and 2050, Kolkata is projected to be among the top three.

Joyashree Roy, a Jadavpur University economist who studies the impact of climate change, says the extreme weather she has been reading about in academic journals for years is already a fact of life in Kolkata. “Climate models are showing temperature-related extremes and rainfall extremes, which we are seeing is already happening,” she says.

These days, the city seems to live in a simultaneous state of growth and decay. A new metro line is under construction, stretching into the eastern suburbs. The roots of old trees wrap their fingers around the old, unkempt houses. One afternoon, walking to a tea shop on Russell Street, in the city centre, I peer through a window to find that an abandoned courtyard had grown into a jungle.

The wetlands, a patchwork of ponds woven together by slender berms, cleans the city’s wastewater. It also defends the city from catastrophic floods, carrying floodwaters to the sea. “The runoff has to go somewhere,” Basu says. “This is that somewhere.” Gunadhar Mondol and his wife in their ramshackle home along a canal in Kolkata, India. Faced with the loss of their homes to flooding, many fisherfolk and rice farmers are abandoning the mangrove-rich delta region known as the Sundarbans, where the River Ganges meets the rising waters of the Bay of Bengal, for Kolkata. Photograph: Saumya Khandelwal/New York Times

Further along the canal, I meet Rini Giri, who says she left her village in the Sundarbans after Cyclone Aila swept through in 2009, flattening her house and turning the rice fields salty. With her husband, Bapi, and their two kids, Giri came to the city a few months later, only to have a thunderstorm send a tree crashing down on the asbestos-and-tin roof of their new home. I notice their beds are raised on bricks. That’s because floodwaters come into the house every year, Giri says.