Why Mumbai Is A Disaster Just Waiting To Happen (And It’s Scary)!

Posted by Pavan Tarawade in Environment, Society
March 27, 2017

26/7 is a date that sends shivers down the spines of most Mumbaikar. On this day in 2005, the city that never sleeps came to a complete standstill because of extraordinarily heavy rainfall.

Ravikant Ghanekar, an IT professional and a resident of Sakinaka, recalls it vividly as one of the worst calamities he has lived through. “I was working for a firm in Ghatkopar. On the day of the flood, it took me almost six hours to travel the route which normally requires not more than 90 minutes. During those long six hours, I witnessed the horror of my hometown drowning in a mess, with flood waters swallowing cars, bikes and landslides that caused buildings to fall. I finally reached home to be greeted by a dirty pool of water, no power and panic among residents,” he recalls.

Prajakta Gade, another Mumbaikar from Kurla recalls being stuck in her car for an entire day. “The government should have at least alerted people about the gravity of the situation. When I managed to reach home with great difficulty, the entire colony was flooded with muddy water, rising much above ground floors. There was no light or water. We felt totally isolated,” she recalls.

While the flood-affected northern areas of the city the most, it also completely cut off the city centre in the south from the mainland. Low-lying areas in Jari-Mari, Govandi, Sakinaka, Kurla were the worst affected. In some of these areas, the water was 10 to 15 feet deep. Open gutters and creeks had turned into raging rivers. Thousands of slum inhabitants had to watch their homes being washed away by flood or been severely damaged.

The breakdown of railways led to about 2.5 million people being trapped and nearly 2 million people were unable to leave the urban centre. The phone networks crumbled leaving families struggling to find out the whereabouts of their loved ones. The population was also exposed to waterborne diseases like hepatitis and gastrointestinal infections.

Lack of administration and governance

After realising the scale of damage caused by the flood, the public was outraged at the poor governance and lack of proper government administration. The then chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, admitted the disaster management plan did not work. He also set up a fact-finding committee.

When people could no longer pin their hopes on the government due to absence of administrative accountability and apathy, several NGOs came together to form ‘Core Citizens’ Commission (CCC)’ as a free, impartial, unbiased commission of enquiry to look into all matters about the floods. The CCC report 2005 states that:

The efforts made for relief and rehabilitation were inadequate. The government declared a two-day holiday for all state government officials including around 35,000 conservancy staff who should have been at the heart of rescue and relief efforts.

As a result, the common citizens had no one to turn to in their hour of need. CCC investigations revealed that around up to a fifth of the Government aid was unaccounted for; also, there were several areas where people not affected by the floods received aid.

Police officials also informed the CCC that there had been no representative from the MMRDA or the MSRDC at the joint meetings held to discuss Mumbai’s monsoon preparedness. They were also absent from the Disaster Management meetings.

The health experts and professionals told CCC that city’s dismal hygiene and waste management system aggravated the impact with a large scale of illness and diseases that broke out after 26/7.

What makes Mumbai so vulnerable

Mumbai or Bom Bahia (The Good Bay), as founded by the Portuguese originally constituted seven islands, later connected by the British to the Peninsula via reclaimed lands that lay just a few meters above sea level. Located in the tropical wet and dry climate zone, the coastal city’s drainage system was designed in the early 20th century for a maximum rainfall of 25 mm per hour.

This was based on the assumption that half the rain would be absorbed and only half would flow into the drainage system. However, over the years, the illegal construction and rampant urbanisation reduced the water-draining capacity of Mumbai drastically. The encroachment covered most nullhas and drains and choked them completely. Brihanmumbai Storm Water Drain Project (BRIMSTOWAD) reports that water and sewer pipes cause nearly 25% of obstruction and blockages in the drains.

Besides, the city witnesses 2500 mm of its 2700 mm of annual rainfall between June and September, putting a severe strain on the daily routine of people. The city is nearly unable to withstand this high density of rainwater which routinely exceeds the capacity of town’s drainage system, and causes a flood-like situation regularly.

Human Encroachment and Skewed urbanisation

Mumbai is the financial, commercial and entertainment capital of India. Mumbai’s business opportunities, as well as its potential to offer a higher standard of living, attract an influx of migrants every year from all over India. The city houses multinational companies, television industry, Bollywood and many financial and educational institutions.

As per 2011 census, the city’s population is 1.24 crore and nearly 52 lakh i.e. 42 percent of its population live in slums. This serves as a vote bank for politicians from different parties who attempt to lure slum-dwellers every year with new promises to protect their homes against regularisation and rehabilitation.

The high density slum population also leads to poor governance. For instance, lack of effective waste management system by Municipal Corporation has led to huge quantities of waste being disposed off into rivers and canals by the population. These waste materials further act as a causative factor of blockages of the drainage system.

Along with dense slum population, factors such as construction in high-risk areas are hurting the delicate framework of the city’s drainage system further. Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms do not allow any construction within 500m of the sea shore. But reality is far different. Reclamation projects at or below high tide level are posing a serious future risk to the megacity.

For instance, clearing of mangroves due to such projects has obstructed the path of the Mithi river flowing into the Mahim creek. The channelisation programme made the river follow an artificial route, thus preventing the natural mixing of river and sea. This loss of natural vegetation resulted in the slower discharge of water. Shailesh Nayak Committee formed in 2014, reviewed CRZ-2011 and recommended a host of dilutions and relaxations in its report. Alas, the recommendations are more in line with demands of the real estate industry seeking relaxations in coastal regulation legislation.

Furthermore, Mumbai airport is located in a flood prone area on the banks of Mithi River, and several creeks cross the airport area. The suburban railroad traffic, the city’s lifeline, which is used by two to three million commuters daily, is collapsing partially during heavy rainfall. There’s an urgent need to examine the city’s infrastructure design, especially transportation.

Planning for disaster management – where are we?

Post-2005 deluge, BMC developed Standard Operation Procedures for responding to Monsoon-related flooding. BMC as per its document identified public agencies and their responsibilities on dealing with a flood like situations. The document lays down the sequence of actions to be taken in emergency situations. But again action speaks louder than words. Brihanmumbai Stormwater Drainage (Brimstowad) project, which was planned to overhaul Mumbai’s water drainage system progressed at snail’s pace resulting in the costs to escalate.

A senior official from BMC partly blamed Department of Environment for this. He said, “Land acquisition and removal of slum encroachments have been major hurdles. We also have to rehabilitate project-affected people and get clearances from the Coastal Zone Management Authority and Coastal Regulatory Zone. We need a green signal from the environment department if there are mangroves or trees to be cut. Only then can we invite tenders for construction work.”

Debi Goenka, an activist and a core committee member of CCC says,“Nothing has changed since the tragedy of 2005. It is the same old story. In fact, the government is keen on regularisation of slums that will hurt vegetation and mangroves further.”

Yes, Mumbaikars are tough, but is that enough?

Despite the havoc that Mumbai faced in 2005, the spirit of the ordinary Mumbaikar was praised. Strangers risked their lives and belongings to help fellow citizens, people forgot their differences even in areas historically prone to communal violence, and wet and weary office goers trudging home, were revived with tea and biscuits offered free of cost by residents en route and much more.

Mumbaikars’ natural instinct to help others was a source of solace when the administration was nearly absent. But such inspiring stories must not eclipse the lack of action by the authorities. BMC must rectify the situation this year and implement a strict action-plan to save the city from another catastrophe.