South Asian monsoons and flooding expose Mumbai’s overdevelopment and greed

Priya Virmani says we will keep seeing a repeat of the Mumbai flood disaster unless out-of-control development is curbed and proper drainage infrastructure installed by authorities who seem all too willing to ignore the problem

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 12:10pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 September, 2017, 7:23pm

South Asia’s floods reached epic proportions last week. The extent of the disaster is staggering – 1,200 casualties in Mumbai, Nepal and Bangladesh; 40 million affected; 18,000 schools closed and 1.8 million children unable to attend.

Mumbai is the richest area in the flood-hit region but has not been spared the tragedy due to a complete lack of preventive measures. Standing proudly on the Arabian Sea coast, its waterways – lakes, creeks, mudflats and rivers – form the very fabric of the city.

Yet, Mumbai has been overbuilt with a complete disregard for topography. It is India’s glamour and commercial capital and has a huge population of 21 million, expected to grow to 28 million in the next 15 years. This has heightened the demand for already scarce land, making the city’s real estate among the most highly prized in the world.

This mix has also become a perfect ground for the greed of private developers. Natural features slowing the floodwaters have been destroyed in the name of development and the danger of building on flood plains has been disregarded. Sadly, Mumbai’s municipal corporation has not laid down stringent ground rules, which ought to include non-negotiable restrictions on building on flood plains.

On August 29, Mumbai received an average of 26mm of rain per hour, the highest 24-hour rainfall in a decade. The city’s drainage system could not cope. In one incident, locals improvised by opening a manhole cover to try to get the floodwaters to recede, with fatal consequences; a doctor wading home through the floods fell into the open manhole.

Floods swamp Mumbai after month’s worth of rain falls in a single day

Add overbuilding to an outdated drainage system in a region of heavy rainfall and you have a crisis waiting to happen. No civic sense and recourse to proper waste disposal for the city’s 12 million poor further stresses the drainage system and waterways with detritus, and exacerbates the crisis. Rainwater is left with nowhere to go horizontally, so it rises into vertical walls of floods that wreak havoc.

The floods swamp buildings that are already weak at the seams due to decades of negligence. One Mumbai structure collapsed into the mounting waters, adding to the death toll. Adequate building maintenance could have averted this disaster.

Add overbuilding to an outdated drainage system in a region of heavy rainfall and you have a crisis waiting to happen

Every year, the city floods; the 2005 flooding was catastrophic. Solutions proposed after that disaster included reclaiming Mumbai’s rivers like the Mithi, which have been turned into garbage canals. Yet, there has been little or no progress and we now have a repeat, more than a decade later. Accordingly, the Mumbai High Court proclaimed last week that the city’s handling of the floods are stymied and had “not moved an inch”.

Measures to make safe India’s dilapidated colonial-era buildings – a scourge in many of its cities – are essential but remain conspicuous by their absence, too.

In 2010, in Calcutta, a blaze at one British-era building killed more than 40 people. An investigation found that a short-circuit caused the fire at Stephen Court, on upmarket Park Street. Locals said no maintenance or safety features were in place. Today, many buildings remain in a state of disrepair in Indian cities, not just in rundown areas, either.

In sprawling, overpopulated Indian cities such as Mumbai and Calcutta, once the monsoon havoc has abated, the uncomfortable spotlight needs to remain on reckless greed, appalling drainage infrastructure and the menace of old colonial-era buildings in need of urgent maintenance. Otherwise, we will keep seeing India’s annual monsoon rains compounded into recurring “natural” disasters.

Dr Priya Virmani is a political and economic analyst