Carlin Carr

Resiliency-building for India's annual rains

Carlin Carr, Bangalore Community Manager


One of India's biggest Bollywood exports, Monsoon Wedding, shows the celebration that traditionally comes with the annual rains. Rural villages dance with excitement as the deluge recharges the water table, bringing hope for a good crop in the ensuing months. Urban areas, however, greet the monsoon with greater caution. Mumbai's 2005 flood shut the city down for days, resulting in loss of life and crippling the country's economic capital. Other Indian cities have experienced similar destruction. For urban informal communities, the annual rains wreak havoc on their lives.

In Bangalore, the poor often reside in the least desirable areas--in lowlands, for example--where rampant flooding causes extensive damage to informal habitats. Water logging also spreads disease and places economic, psychological and physical hardship on communities with few strategic resiliency tools. The issues are exacerbated by lack of appropriate municipal services, such as storm water drainage, and by an even bigger monster--urbanization itself. Rapid, unplanned urbanization has not only resulted in lack of city services but, more importantly, has paved over natural mechanisms for handling the annual weather pattern.

A major loss due to unplanned urbanization is the dramatic reduction in urban wetlands. In India, urban wetlands have diminished by 30% in the last 50 years due to waste dumping in water bodies, rapid development with little thought to the surrounding ecosystem and slum encroachment. "Wetlands hold the run-off generated from heavy rainfall, water discharge from reservoirs or channels or snow-melt events," says an article entitled "Urban Floods in Bangalore and Chennai: Risk Management Challenges and Lessons for Sustainable Urban Ecology". "Wetland vegetation slows down the flow of floodwater. Wetlands reduce the need for expensive engineering structures." Greater protection of these natural storm drains will go a long way in reducing destructive impacts of the monsoon, and will save the city and its resident money and hassle.

While promoting more environmentally-focused development is one strategy, another should be the widespread adoption of effective waste management. "Often the best investment in drainage is better handling of solid waste to prevent systems from becoming rapidly blocked with debris," reports the Bangalore and Chennai study. Bangalore has seen a sea change when it comes to waste management in the city, launching a Zero Waste campaign and moving toward recycling at source. One of the major shifts is illuminated in the slogan changes, from "Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY)" to "Yes In My Back Yard." The promotion of decentralized waste management could be an effective step in dealing with the solid waste issue.

However, the Hindu reported last year that the programs have faced many obstacles. The municipal corporation "continues to lack the institutional capacity and resilience to implement and sustain their new vision for waste management. The cause is not helped by continued resistance from communities who do not want waste processing centers to be placed in their vicinity."

The monsoon will be rolling in soon. Vulnerable communities continue to sit in precarious positions, and city systems to handle the rains, especially with increased likelihood of flash flooding due to loss of catchment areas, remain elusive. Bangalore has made great strides in developing new focus areas and campaigns, but greater will for implementation needs to be put behind them. Then, perhaps, the rains can be welcomed again by all.

Photo credit: Archit Ratan