Urban Flooding – Lessons to learn

Urban Floods

By B T Srinivasan

The recent floods in most cities India have taken both governments and people by surprise.

Due to global warming, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal are warming at a higher rate than other oceans, severely affecting weather patterns in India. The recurrence of extreme climate events, especially in our country, like heavy rains flooding urban areas, are becoming more frequent due to climate change.

Severe water-logging has brought cities like Mumbai, Hyderabad, Patna, Chennai, Kochi to a halt. Citizens face horrible situations with hospitals and residential areas filled with waist-deep water. Transport services are disrupted, and many trains are cancelled. There is no electricity, food and drinking water shortages plague most areas.

Although heavy rains can be attributed to the delayed monsoon, as a part of climate change; the massive flooding in cities is largely a consequence of unplanned urbanisation. The flooding is mainly due to overflowing rivers, lakes and nalas. The “uninformed” way in which our cities keep growing plays a major role in this.

Overburdened drainage, unregulated constructions, buildings constructed on reclaimed wetlands, flood plains and lowlands of the city are most frequently affected, as these areas have cheaper land rates. Urban floods are man-made disasters. What is surprising, though, is that not just private individuals or builders, but the government too continues to build over such vulnerable areas. Overlooking environmental regulations in mega-projects is fairly common in the country. Back in the 2000s, Delhi’s Akshardham Temple Complex and Commonwealth Games Village (CWG) were built right on the Yamuna’s floodplain.

The secondary runway of the Chennai International Airport was also built right over the Adyar River. Most of the airport was constructed on the riverine floodplains, leading to massive flooding during the 2015 Chennai floods.

Even recent developments such as Andhra Pradesh’s Amaravati Capital City Project had major areas proposed to be built on the floodplains of Krishna river.

Who is most vulnerable?

When a city starts flooding after intense rainfall, the focus is on the breakdown of public services, the closing of schools, and difficulty in transportation, among others. While these problems bring the city to a halt and make news for a few days, what is missed is the focus on who gets worst hit and how?

Mumbai, for instance, is often referred as a prime example when it comes to discussing urban floods in India, while there have been multiple plans and proposals to update Mumbai’s storm water disposal system, no conclusion has arrived at it yet.

In the case in Delhi’s Yamuna Pushta area — the same floodplain region where Akshardham and CWG Village have been built — where slum areas flood almost every year now.

We do not yet realise that it is the poor who are the most vulnerable to the changing climate. Unhygienic living conditions in slums and water accumulation during and after monsoons further compound the problem. Floodwaters circulate untreated solid waste which leads to outbreaks of malaria, dengue and diarrhoea in the locality.

Who is responsible?

The fact is that our cities have been built with little to no regard to the natural topography and severely lacks holistic action. Local Urban bodies focus largely on de-silting of stormwater drains before monsoon and expansion of the over-burdened infrastructure, but at a crawling pace.

The recurrent urban flooding in Mumbai is a prime example of this lagged response by the government. The major factor is the city’s old drainage system, which is heavily silted and damaged.

Role of Citizens& RWAs

Urban Local Bodies (ULBs), governments do not consider the participation of citizens, RWAs or for building their capacity for a resilient future. The ‘improvement works after city flood’, mostly involve constructing stormwater drainages, flood protection walls and de-silting canals. Were the concerns of disaster risk reduction or climate change considered in these activities?  No.

However, after 14 years of National Disaster Management Act (2005) and consecutive disasters wreaked havoc in cities like Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad at last, some cities get their own disaster management plan.

The City Disaster Management Plan (CDMP)

It is a logical first step to build confidence among citizens to establish preparedness of the city administration for disasters. However, the plan is available only in English and not in the respective regional languages. Which defeats the very purpose of making it? At the outset, the plan welcomes feedback and suggestions to strengthen ULB’S effort to make the city ‘a safe place to live in’.

But more needs to be done. It is important to ensure the CDMP document must be available and easily accessible at every educational institution, both government and private offices and public places in both English and in regional language. Further, the ULB can facilitate frequent awareness and targeted orientation programmes in a manner and language which is understandable to the most vulnerable population of the city. If ULB has limited human resources as it always needs explaining during emergency situations, it may take help of dedicated RWAs, NGOs/experts to build the capacity of residents. As a next step, ULBs must prepare a City Climate Change Action Plan which includes climate change-induced disasters, including health hazards like dengue and viral fever.

Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, GHMC recently established Disaster Management Cell to ensure its preparedness to implement the Disaster management plan and work towards enhancing and improving the capabilities to response the disaster situations. GHMC proactively and frequently update climate condition and possible extreme rain conditions in advance in the public domain.

What to do?

As the incidence of climate variability and extreme weather events increases, and urban flooding becomes more and more common, it is inevitable that we look at the issue from a broad-based perspective. The focus has to be on increasing the resilience of communities and the adaptive capacity of our infrastructure.

Water sensitive urban design and planning techniques — especially in the context of implementation — are of utmost importance. These methods take into consideration the topography, types of surfaces (pervious or impervious), natural drainage and leave very less impact on the environment. Vulnerability analyses and risk assessments should form part and parcel of city master plans, improve water management including stringent building bylaws, enforcement and campaigning.

Most importantly strong land use controls are needed. Disabling settlements in sensitive zones by providing adequate affordable housing reducing the number of persons vulnerable to changing the climate. All this means urban local bodies will continue to have a central role to play in cities’ battle with extreme weather events such as flooding and their overall resilience.

(This article was first carried in the compendium published to coincide with the 7th National Conference of RWAs held on November 16-17, 2019, at New Delhi.)