It is that time of the year in Mumbai when incessant rainfall and water-logging bring back people’s memories of the flood that struck the city back in July 2005. Has the city recovered from that life-changing extreme weather event in which large parts registered once-in-a-century rainfall of 944mm? An honest answer to this question would have to examine multiple levels of our behaviour on high rainfall days such as the ones we have had earlier this week.
That many who could choose between staying at home and braving the rain on the roads opted to work out of home, that the highways and roads had smoother traffic flow with fewer vehicles, that schools and colleges followed the orange or red alerts to calls off classes give a glimpse of people’s mindset. If we are looking at ways in which Mumbai has made flood-ready in the past 18 years – a really long time in the life a fast-transforming city of millions – then there are the usual physical parameters such as expanding storm water drainage network, constructing underground water-holding tanks and other flood mitigation measures that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the state government regularly talk about.
However, if we were to assess people’s confidence in the city being flood-ready or flood-resilient, then there isn’t much to write home about. At a time that the Arabian Sea is showing more churn with the possibility of greater number of cyclones hitting the city than ever before (read climate scientist Adam H. Sobel’s work on this among that of others), at a time that international studies including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have projected a sea-level rise that could submerge parts of the city, at a time the rainfall patterns have changed in intensity and frequency, making Mumbai flood-ready or flood-resilient is more urgent than ever.
This, though, is only a part of the task at hand as this week has clearly shown. Just as Mumbai was rained out – or rained in – cities in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region saw rainfall in triple digits breaking or swamping their infrastructure that’s even poorly equipped than Mumbai’s to deal with massive floods. Kalyan, for instance, registered 159mm rain on Wednesday while Badlapur saw 169mm; Panvel, Nerul, Kasarvadavli, Airoli, Thane, Mumbra, Ambarnath, Ulhasnagar all recorded above 110mm in 24 hours. Most cities are ill-equipped to deal with such a torrential downpour; stormwater drainage networks are overwhelmed with half of that quantum of rain leading many in the domain to suggest that there is little that cities can effectively do to address floods – except brace for the impact and wait for the water to drain out.
There is the undeniable impact of climate change in the way not just Mumbai but the entire MMR is receiving rainfall, as studies have shown. The once-in-50-year flood is likely happening more frequently as is the once-in-20-year flood, there are cloud bursts and so on. So, do the BMC and state government throw up hands and cry “force majeure” to justify it all? Or are we missing a critical element in this story, an element that may be far more difficult to accept and explain?
Rivers. Cities have rivers flowing through them, across their terrain, used and abused, built upon and barricaded, their banks concretised and ‘developed’, and so on. Rivers, with other water bodies such as lakes, ponds, wells and nullahs form the blue infrastructure or the natural water channels of cities. These channels evolved naturally with geological and hydrological features that enabled them to carry rainwater out to the sea or creeks that led to the sea. But given the frenetic pace of ‘development’ which has mostly meant more and more construction and concretisation, the natural water channels have been disrupted, broken, blocked or dislocated. How and where will the rain drain out?
Just as the Mithi River made its presence felt in Mumbai in July 2005, rivers in the MMR too swelled up this week. Ulhas, Kalu, Waldhuni, Bhatsa, Amba, Patalganga, Vashisthi, Savitri rivers were flowing well above the danger mark on Wednesday while some bridges on Ulhas, Kalu and Murbadi rivers were barely visible given the large inundation. Hundreds of people had been moved out of their homes to safer locations and the NDRF teams were kept on standby.
The hilly regions of Kasara, Karjat, Khopoli where most of these rivers emerge saw massive rainfall on Tuesday-Wednesday. The rivers flow through many of the MMR cities before emptying out into the creek at Kalyan and nearby spots. Gushing rivers coupled with heavy rain and high tide wreaked havoc in the cities. As in the case of Mithi – or any of the other rivers in Mumbai – large areas of the river floodplain are occupied and built upon, legally or illegally. It is easier to focus on informal or illegal occupants and they face the first axe of demolition too, but formal and ‘legal’ constructions are sanctioned too. The structures on Yamuna’s floodplain in Delhi – the Commonwealth Games Village and Akshardham Temple which were constructed despite court orders – illustrate this.
The floodplain, as experts never tire of pointing out, comprises two parts that people who live by rivers know only too well but people in cities do not care enough about. The first is the floodway or the natural channel of the river which keeps increasing or decreasing depending on the season and water flow. In monsoon, when the river is in spate, it waters occupy a larger floodway or area which remains relatively dry in other seasons. Beyond the floodway till the edges of the nearest valley is the flood fringe of the river, or the area that its waters can sometimes inundate in case of a massive flow or heavy rainfall.
In most cities that routinely flood, construction was formally approved not only in the flood fringe areas but sometimes also on the outer edges of the floodway itself. These areas were meant to be inundated, were meant for the water to occupy; human activity encroached into them leaving little space to hold the rise of the river. Similarly, wells and lakes and ponds are holding areas for rain water. They have all but gone from cities in the construction frenzy. Green areas and open spaces which soak the rain water into the ground have shrunk, vast stretches of lived spaces such as roads and building compounds are concretised. Where will the rain water go?
In the last 18 years, the state government and BMC have taken tokenistic steps to restore Mithi and other rivers in Mumbai in order to return some of the city’s blue infrastructure back to its natural state. With Mithi-like conditions being repeated across the MMR, it is time that the government and authorities such as the MMRDA prioritised renewing the region’s natural water channels. There’s nothing they can do about extreme climate events such as heavy rainfall but there’s a lot they can – and must – do about respecting the water’s way.
Smruti Koppikar, journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is also the Founder Editor of ‘Question of Cities’