Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai's oppressive summer heat has residents awaiting the arrival of monsoon season. The rains are celebrated across the country, bringing three months of relief from soaring temperatures as well as much-needed water for farmers and their crops. In urban centers, however, the rains pose a serious threat to lives and livelihoods, especially for the poor. Slums have proliferated wherever space is available, even on disaster-prone hillsides, in floodplains, or alongside bodies of water. These shelters are flimsy in the best of circumstances. When an unexpected deluge comes down, Mumbaikers know the devastating consequences all too well.
In a day the city won't soon forget — July 26, 2005 — a cyclone hit the country's economic hub, dumping a record 94 centimeters of rain in a 24-hour period. Roads became rivers, leaving residents shoulder-high in murky, treacherous water. The city's entire public transportation system came to a halt, shops were destroyed, and more than 1,000 people died, mostly in slum settlements.
The severe flooding left an unprepared Mumbai suffering for seven weeks before flood waters receded. In addition to loss of human life, 26,000 cattle died, 14,000 homes were destroyed, and more than 350,000 homes were damaged. The Mumbai floods cost ~INR450 crore (~$US90.25m) in direct losses — and that's without calculating medical costs due to waterborne disease and other resulting conditions.
Impact on the poor
Natural disasters such as flooding reveal just how vulnerable the poor are to plunging even deeper into challenging circumstances. Although the city calculated financial losses in the millions, the urban poor faced losses that can be more difficult to address quickly. Most exist outside the formal system, and when many of their small businesses (streetside stands, foodstalls, waste recycling, and so on) were decimated entirely in a matter of minutes, their daily wages were lost as well.
Seasonal rains that last for less than a day can negatively impact the poor and the spaces they inhabit for years to come. Many are displaced to camps, where they live in roadside tents and rely on begging and donations from the government or international sources. Medical supplies are few and far between. While the rest of the city gets back to normalcy, vulnerable populations hit by natural disaster can feel the ripple effects for generations.
Managing the urban environment
The Mumbai floods were so devastating to India that they changed the discourse on flooding and disaster management on the national level. The government instituted the National Action Plan on Climate Change in 2008, and the issue of climate change mitigation and adaptation has come to the forefront of the public policy agenda. At the local level, however, few measures have been effectively implemented to deal with flooding and climate change. And even fewer measures have focused on fighting nature with nature: reducing urban flood risk through improving urban ecology.
As migrant populations continue to head towards urban areas for economic gains, they build small, makeshift homes wherever they can find a small piece of land. Given the lack of services throughout these urban centers, many set up their new lives near bodies of water in order to better provide for their daily needs. A major loss due to unplanned urbanization has been the dramatic reduction in urban wetlands. These settlements, along with waste dumping and other urban development projects, have diminished urban wetlands in India by 30 percent in the last 50 years.
Urban bodies of water play an important role in preventing urban flooding by absorbing the run-off generated from heavy rainfall. An article published last year on preventing urban flooding says, "Wetland vegetation slows down the flow of floodwater. Wetlands reduce the need for expensive engineering structures." This natural vegetation and "flood-prevention" tactic can have all-around positive impacts on a city. Rivers, wetlands, lakes, trees, and other vegetation also help in combating pollution and reducing temperatures. Yet rapid, unplanned urbanization has damaged the ecology and natural balance of cities, leaving residents increasingly at risk.
Cleaning up the Mithi
In Mumbai, the city's sole river, the Mithi, trickles through a trash-filled riverbed, unknown to most modern Mumbaikers. Once a great river that flowed through the city, the Mithi has become a 15-kilometer gutter. Informal recycling units along the river's edge discard scrap metal, plastics, and other unwanted materials into its waters. Residents of shanties that run the length of the Mithi have made it their toilet. Rather than symbolizing the greatness of a city — as so many rivers do, since cities have so often grown into economic hubs because of a river's existence — the Mithi has come to represent all that's lacking in the city: a woeful citywide waste management system, a lack of sanitation services, and the utter absence of a city planning process that would connect residents more thoughtfully to their surrounding environment.
Yet increasingly, residents of Mumbai are calling for the city to clean up the river, open up more green spaces, and look at more economically sound flood-prevention tactics that can also benefit the city. For example, the Observer Research Foundation, a public policy think-tank in Mumbai, released a study last year on revitalizing the Mithi, suggesting that a cleaned-up river could lead to riverside parks, gardens, and walking paths that would all contribute to a cooling effect in the city, as well as moving toward the creation of a new attraction for Mumbai.
But getting there will be complicated. Slumdwellers live along the river, and livelihoods exist because of it. In short, redevelopment in the region is a complex task with many stakeholders.
Measures that are likely to have the greatest impact in reducing the potential for destructive flooding include green initiatives, such as proposals to revitalize the Mithi. In Delhi, the local government has made a conscious effort to implement more environmentally focused infrastructure and enacted similar policy, according to an article in the India Economy Review entitled "Climate Change Risks and Adaptation: Indian Mega-Cities." Among the initiatives outlined are Delhi's CNG-fuelled public transport system — the largest of its kind in the world — and the city's increased efforts to adopt green building technology, which is now mandatory for all Public Works Department and Airport Authority buildings. The city has also focused on expansion of forest cover, which has grown from 3 percent in 1998 to 19 percent in 2005.
Protecting the ecosystem to avert natural disaster
As urban growth has skyrocketed, its messy trajectory is not only forcing a majority of citizens to live in dire conditions, but also is increasing both the likelihood and the impact of natural disaster. The urban ecosystem is often discussed in terms of green space for play or waterways for aesthetic beauty. In fact, protecting the natural ecosystem — and rebuilding massive portions of it that have already been destroyed — is one of the best means of combatting the severe flooding that has ravaged the region. While city governments, in the interim, need to continue with disaster management plans to prevent another Mumbai 2005 situation, innovative green solutions for protecting urban citizens from natural disaster should lead the way towards a new urban development in South Asia. With that, India's sweltering urbanites will be able to celebrate the rains once more.