What drowned Mumbai?

Shalini Sharma

Floods cause devastation because we have destroyed nature’s system for absorbing excess rainfall. So, is nature disrupting our lives or are we disrupting the natural order?

After incessant rain pounded Mumbai on August 29, newspapers the next day were replete with pictures of the fury unleashed by the deluge. It showed a worn-out, breathless city coming to a standstill. Social media platforms like Facebook told stories of how strangers in the city helped fellow strangers to get home and autowallahs came to the aid of people stranded on roads. It was a calamity that united people against nature’s rage. Heavy rains are a part of everyday life in Mumbai but a flood that unravels the fury of nature in the blink of an eye is what brings humanity together and forms fodder for fantastic headlines. 

This is exactly the lingo—one that pits nature against mankind as an adversary—that makes Anu Kapur, an academician who teaches environmental and disaster studies at Delhi School of Economics, livid. “Floods will come and they are natural processes. It causes devastation because we have destroyed the shock system that could absorb them. Nature is not coming in our way, rather, we are coming in its way,” she fumes. 

Flash floods are floods that happen in a flash because of varied reasons: a cloudburst, a lot of rainfall in a short period of time and, in hilly areas, it could also be triggered when rocks block the passage of a river due to a landslide, creating a false dam whose force cannot be controlled. The floods that inundated Uttarakhand in 2013 were triggered by both landslides and cloudbursts. In urban areas, on the other hand, flash floods are caused when a lot of water accumulates because of heavy rainfall and is unable to seep into the ground. It then rushes towards low-lying areas with great speed, creating a flood within a small span of time like the one that happened in Chennai in 2015 and in Mumbai previously in 2005. The occurrence of flash floods is more common in coastal areas. With heavy rainfall, the water level rises, inundating low-lying areas along the coastline. 

In her book, Vulnerable India: A Geographical Study of Disasters, Kapur uses a model to explain how language is tweaked at various levels to demonise nature and portray mankind as being helpless before the fury of nature. According to the academician, while the scientist employs terms like record rainfall and deluge, journalists use adjectives like fury, death and devastation to portray nature as an unassailable force. “Who exactly are we providing relief against? Nature? But nature has its own mechanism to deal with the cycle of seasons. Whenever there is a ‘deluge’ and water level rises, water rushes to the floodplains. If we go and build our homes in the floodplains, we will surely drown when it comes. We have slowly destroyed all the natural reservoirs to hold rainwater, encroached upon areas that belonged to water bodies and then we blame nature for causing devastation. Floods are not being caused by heavy rainfall, they are being caused by incompetence and our own greed,” the professor elaborates. 

If one assesses the degree to which nature has been tampered with, it will not be an exaggeration to say that we are on the brink of a disaster. Mumbai is a good example of how far mankind has gone in exploiting nature. In a city starved of space, reclamation of land has been going on for ages to accommodate the ever-growing population. In the book, Disasters in India: Studies of Grim Reality, Neeti Chopra argues that the reclamation of land in Mumbai began with the coming of the British and the setting up of foreign shipping services and a railway line to the cotton growing areas in the hinterland in the 1860s. According to her, with an increase in population, the human settlement on the edges extended closer to water bodies and so did the frequency of floods—173 floods swept Greater Mumbai between 1978 and 2000. 

In Chennai too, as the city has grown and kept its pace with time, the perimeter of built-up land has extended well into the areas which were earlier frequented by water during monsoons. An airport has come up on the floodplains of the Adyar river, a bus depot has been built in Koyambedu which is prone to flooding and the Pallikaranai marshlands have shrunk in size with the construction of a Mass Rapid Transit System. Sprawling campuses of institutes and firms have come up on water bodies and marshlands with no care for regulating water flow. If one looks at the map of Chennai today and compares it with a two-decade-old map, one would notice how the city has grown, spreading well beyond its original periphery. 

According to Shankar Mahato, a senior consultant with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) who has worked with the water ministry all his life, the development that has taken place in the previous decades has definitely dealt a blow to nature. “Footpaths have been concretised, drainage systems are clogged. We have left no space for rainwater to seep into the ground. Where will it go? And this is when there are so many areas in the country where people don’t even have access to drinking water,” rues Mahato. He also blames the Met department for their lax attitude in making weather predictions that result in more damage every time there is heavy rainfall. According to the bureaucrat, India receives rainfall for only four months in a year and it is critical to save as much of that water as possible. While he debates if the occurrence of flash floods is directly linked to climate change, he adds that the latter has certainly changed rainfall patterns, so much so that the number of rainy days has reduced but the amount of rainfall that occurred over an extended period of time now falls in a short period. 

However, Mahato is less resentful of the damage that has been done and more focussed on the problems that lie ahead. “From here, we cannot go back and undo all that has been done. But we can certainly operate within our limits to control the damage. Fortunately, plans for newer societies include rainwater harvesting mechanisms and are kinder to nature.”

As for the Delhi School of Economics professor, the more she has witnessed and documented the damage caused to nature by mankind in her work, the more she has come to despise the system that has no concern for accommodating nature, that clogs drains and causes flash floods. Kapur points out that wherever flash floods occur, the ones to suffer the most are the poor, the common masses. “During the Mumbai floods, did you see the Taj or the Oberoi getting flooded? The flash floods that inundated the city this year didn’t cause any damage to the Oberoi and the Taj. I think these issues are dubbed devastations caused by nature’s fury because they don’t bother politicians and other rich people. It only concerns the common man and who is worried about him, anyway?” asks Kapur. But she sees hope in the common masses and foresees a revolution led by them which will hold the government accountable for dubbing disasters nature’s fury and urging people to work towards making room for nature in our lives. Kapur says that she may not live to see the struggle come to fruition, but it is something we owe to the next generation—a promise that we will prepare the bed for the revolution to come.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2017