Now it is floods

  • 29/09/2000

The library of the Centre for Science and Environment ( cse ) has just put together a collection of clippings from April 1999 onwards on floods in major cities of India. First it was drought and now it is floods, not just rural floods but also urban floods. Urban environmental management has reached such disastrous levels that hardly any major city now escapes floods.

In 1999, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Calcutta, Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai had faced the fury of water. This year, it is, Hyderabad and Mumbai. Information on smaller towns is hazy but there is no reason to believe that they have fared better. Calcutta was so badly hit by repeated downpours in 1999 that the Opposition had made the cpm the butt of their jokes during the last general elections. Even prime minister Vajpayee had not spared the state's ruling party during his visit to Calcutta. And the media had asked that if a century-old crumbling sewerage was the main cause then why are the three-decade-old new areas getting flooded. The city turned into a lake. With water mixing with dirt and sewage overflows, the stench in many areas was unbearable.

Mumbai faced the worst downpour in 50 years in May 1999 and then in June, a landslide killed seven people in a slum. No lessons were learnt. This year, when the city went underwater again, some 22 slum dwellers died in another landslide, the army was called out for help and some 300 people had to be evacuated. And as water mixed with filth like rat and dog urine, the city faced a dirty disease called leptospirosis. The mixing of floodwaters with sewage gives the urban flood a particularly unhealthy character. Hyderabad has suffered an estimated damage of Rs 700 crore this year.

Mindless urbanisation is the key cause. The problem will continue to grow till there is proper urban management. It is true that infrastructure development in Indian cities has not kept pace with their growth and given the nature of India's rainfall some 100 hours bring us all the rain we get in a year there is nothing but mayhem whenever the rain god decides to bless us. But inadequate infrastructure is often cited because everybody wants to make money creating these systems whose quality is very poor. After all, in India when the government cannot ensure good quality road construction, something that is visible, who is going to ensure high quality construction underground. Even worse, who is going to ensure that they are kept well-maintained and desilted. The Telegraph after the 1999 Calcutta deluge said - "The drainage system of most parts of the city has not been overhauled as long as memory serves." This can be repeated ad nauseum for most cities.

The biggest reason for urban floods is the total lack of attention to the nature of India's hydrological system. When we know that heavy downpours are inevitable every few years or so, then we must ensure that natural drainage channels are well-maintained and instead of encroaching upon and filling up urban lakes to use the high-value urban land for buildings, these lakes and tanks are well protected. This is something our ancestors knew but our current urban planners and politicians don't worry about such mundane things.

Urban land is valuable. So illegal filling of urban waterbodies is rampant. In Calcutta, for instance, Lake Town, badly situated, has not only suffered heavy floods in 1999 but also in 1970, 1978, 1984 and 1986. Every deluge brings with it immediately a complaint against the meteorological department for inadequate warning. The cpm did this in Calcutta last year and Chandrababu Naidu in Hyderabad this year. The Met office is indeed poor in this regard but this complaint is meaningless because with choked drainage and no storage systems, what good will a warning serve? At least Hyderabad's environmentalists like K L Vyas and K Purushotam Reddy have forced the chief minister to acknowledge that the major cause was blockage of drainage channels by buildings and improper maintenance of tanks. Built in 1562, the storage capacity of Hussainsagar tank, the city's biggest waterbody, is now half. And the number of waterbodies, once 530 is now down to 150.

Rainwater harvesting can play a key role in arresting floods just as it can play a critical role in ameliorating drought. Controlling urban floods is an exercise in which everybody should participate. We can learn from other countries. The Sumida City in Tokyo began rainwater harvesting after a flood left residents without drinking water for weeks. In Bonn, households pay a tax per square metre of paved area unless they do rainwater harvesting in order to control urban floods and prevent overloading of the sewer system. Apart from encouraging rainwater harvesting, the state must ensure that natural drainage channels are kept open and every sub-unit of a city has a lake to store runoff. Today, Hauz Khas, or the Royal Tank in Delhi, has all its drainage channels choked. Even in the monsoons, it remains empty. But the cse building in Delhi captures all the rain that falls on it. Not a drop leaves the building. Our small contribution to the control of urban floods and reduction of public investment as our stormwater drain is no longer needed.

It is time people established their relationship with water once again.

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