Mumbai is abuzz with talk of flooding, but for once it’s not that we’re getting monsoon rains in November or worries that we won’t make it home in the downpour. It’s that a new piece of research using AI to more accurately understand land levels suggests that Mumbai will be mostly under the high tide line within about 30 years.

The country’s economic and financial engine - its powerhouse - underwater, unliveable, “erased”.

Many people here recognise that we’re on the frontline of climate change, and that the absolute carbon dioxide emission growth implied in our Intended nationally determined contributions (INDC) under the Paris Agreement is literally shooting ourselves in the foot. But this new paper, and the powerful maps it includes, makes things more stark when you can see the locations of the headquarters of our biggest conglomerates including the Aditya Birla Group, the Tata Group, Reliance and the Godrej’s, the stock exchange and the mint, and the seat of major banks literally underwater. Without them, even with all the statistical massaging, our economy is in very hot water.

Yes, Mr Ambani may be technically ok at the top of Peddar Road, but he’s going to find it pretty tricky to pop out for his chai. As Forum for the Future’s resident climate expert Iain Watt reminds us regularly, not only may the shop not be there, but also the pavement, the logistics route, the chai wala and his family, the electricity, the mobile signal, the ATM and so on.

With sea-level rise virtually inevitable because of our historic emissions, this report appears to be presenting a likely future. We can argue about its timing, no doubt, but as Antonio Guterres says, “the trend is there”. That means we need to work out if it is possible and/or viable to protect the city from the rise, and if not then to move it in a massive planned migration, as Jakarta has decided and Bangladesh is exploring. So what on earth do we, as residents of Mumbai, do with that information? 

Apart from the flippant remarks about running for the hills, it is so clear that what is needed is systemic change. Yet at the same time, Mumbai is a city that profoundly experiences the deep barriers to this happening that Forum for the Future’s CEO, Sally Uren, articulates in this article: short-termism, vested interests, resistance to ambiguity and uncertainty, and a lack of recognition of the strategic importance of sustainability.

But Mumbai is also home to people who make things happen against the odds. It’s the city of dreams.

Borrowing from an emerging framework set out by my colleague Anna Birney, my dream would be a city where we all play our part in bringing about systemic change; a city where we all:

Recognise that this problem is bigger than our individual selves, and solutions require empathy and systemic thinking. How might we plan for all players/actors in Mumbai, and in other regions that will receive migrants? How might our actions not just build resilience for ourselves, but also deliberately create positive ripple effects?

Enable different voices to contribute to crafting the best possible fate for the many peoples of the city. We need to engage different perspectives to gain a richer understanding of what is needed, and to make better strategic decisions. How might we adapt to this inevitable change in a manner that helps build a more inclusive society?

Are proactive, rather than reactive in the face of disruptive, radical change. What do we really want to retain: social fabric; culture; norms; and is there anything we can actively discard as this bigger change is forced upon us? How do we use this as an opportunity to emerge like a butterfly from our chrysalis?

Think about where we – and other players - have influence and power. Tap into that; and/or challenge when current power seeks to preserve itself and the status quo. How might we influence for bold change where we have power, no matter how small?

Think long-term – and are aware that change is unlikely to stop in 2050. The solutions that emerge will have to be resilient to further change. We need to look beyond whether a new road might get us to work faster, to whether that road will exist a few decades down the line. How might we encourage investment decisions that won’t see value literally flow down the drain?

Embrace complexity, and constantly learn and adapt. There is so much complexity involved in protecting or moving a city that we need to deliberately learn fast and respond. How might we take action, learn and adapt quickly at the scale of a city?

As a resident, a business person, a government official, a member of civil society, a Bollywood actor, a commuter, a student, a selfie taker and any other of a myriad of wonderful people connected to Mumbai, we can all in our own ways act to make the above dream a reality. The first reaction to the map of our underwater city may be to feel lost at sea, but the second can be an active step towards the best possible future for us all.

Anna Warrington is the Director of Forum for the Future, India. Much of Anna’s work centres on understanding future opportunities for business in creating a sustainable world, convening ambitious organisations to address wicked problems and supporting the Indian team to flourish in their roles. 

You can read about Forum for the Future's new project in India working towards a Net Positive Renewable Energy sector here.