A case of ecological illiteracy: Mumbai flood

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26 July is the date that has been etched in the minds of Mumbaikars (residents of Mumbai) as a day when Mumbai submerged in a huge flood.  It witnessed a record breaking rainfall that was highest in 100 years. 944 mm of rainfall was recorded over a period of 18 hours. To add to that was the coinciding high tide. It also affected other parts of Maharashtra.

That's little me. In the background is a house that was in front of our house. The people in it evacuated during the flood.
That’s little me. In the background is a house that was in front of our house. The people in it evacuated during the flood.

As I write this, I can recall some memories from that day. I was 15 back then and it was just another rainy day for us until we saw the sewage had started to overflow and the land in front of our house was nowhere to be seen. It started happening so quickly that water was soon everywhere. We lived in a two-storey house. We moved our belongings to the upper floor. We couldn’t move everything. We mounted the fridge on the bed . We then chained two big, blue-colored water storage barrels in the fear that they would get away with the outpour. The water soon rose to a height of about 6 feet. My father and my brother somehow managed to bring packets of instant noodles. My mother cooked them for me and my cousin. The cousin had arrived at an unfortunate time. He had come from a village that probably will never see a flood, a hilly area way above the sea-level.

When the water receded, we moved back to the lower level of our house. We wondered if it was really over until we heard a mob screaming and rushing towards our house. As they moved towards us, the mob grew bigger in size as all people in the adjacent houses it passed by had panicked and joined the mob. The mob was afraid that a huge wave of water was headed our way. We rushed with our the then 95-year-old grandmother in the direction the mob was taking us. We all settled in a temple nearby that was situated at a height where the water won’t find us. My friend cried as she was scared for her life. I didn’t know what to do except to promise her that we will be okay. A while later, a police van came by asking us to return to our homes. It had turned out to be a false alarm. We went back safe to our houses. We figured the mob was probably triggered by thieves who knew people would flee without locking the doors. Nothing was stolen from our houses though.

This wasn’t the first time our house was flooded. Our two-storey house was once a low-lying single-storey house with an attic. I barely remember the times when heavy rainfall would cause our house to flood. My parents would remove water one bucket at a time until it was water-free. I’m sure my parents have much vivid memories of such times as I was very young, probably less than 10 years of age.

Why did 26 July 2005 happen?

Mumbai floodA Fact Finding Committee was set up by the Government to find out what led to this disaster. It wasn’t just the rainfall that caused the disaster.

Old inefficient infrastructure:

Mumbai was once 7 discrete islands: Isle of Bombay, Colaba, Old Woman’s Island (Little Colaba), Mahim, Mazagaon, Parel and Worli. It was only when it underwent major reclamation that we now see Mumbai as one whole city. As mentioned in National Geographic’s series Nat Geo Specials – Mumbai Mega Flood, 65 percent of Mumbai city was originally just water and that it was reclaimed later. To improve the drainage system of this city, a plan was chalked out. It was refused by the BMC committee on the grounds of it being too expensive. Estimated loss after the flood: 450 crore (Rs. 450,00,00,000). 1100 lives were lost in the entire state. Mumbai lost 454 people. I don’t know how much money went into restoration and renewal. Go figure!

Other losses:

Cattle deaths: about 2,0000
Houses damaged: 250,000
Small vehicles damaged: 20,000
BEST buses damaged: 2500
Trains damaged: 25%
Stranded: Millions

In National Geographic’s series Nat Geo Specials – Mumbai Mega Flood, Bittu Sahgal, environmental activist and writer, called it a case of ecological illiteracy. He mentioned how the government failed to take their suggestions seriously. Urban planner Chandrashekhar Prabhu called it a man-made tragedy due to excessive urbanization.

Underestimation of mangrove systems:

Mangroves are types of trees that store water for a short period of time. Destruction of mangroves aided the flood.

Disturbed Mithi river:

Mithi river is a 18 km long main storm water drain for the city. Mithi when translated means sweet. Over the years, this sweet river has been encroached upon by dwellers, dirtied by garbage, polluted by sewage and industrial waste. It’s been disturbed at so many levels. No wonder it turned right on us during the floods. Mithi River Development Authority was set up to take care of this so called ‘dying’ river. Magsaysay Award-winning water conservation activist Rajendra Singh has been salient part of this river’s revival. Measures have been taken to widen this river, remove encroachments and collect garbage.

Is Mumbai danger free?

Not quiet. Other than Mithi river, measures have been taken to combat future floods at other places in the city. These include installation of pumps at certain spots in the city to disperse flood water, de-silting of drains and cleaning of railway culverts. All of this still doesn’t make the city danger free. This is because the work is slow.

Further reading:

Yellow, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Bombay, 2008

Maharashtra Floods 2005, Relief and Rehabilitation, Status report by Government of Maharashtra

Why Mumbai must reclaim its Mithi, a study by Gautam Kirtane, India Water Portal

 

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10 thoughts on “A case of ecological illiteracy: Mumbai flood

  1. I hope next time God forbid bt if such situation arrives, Mumbaikars will deal with it in a much more better way and set an example for other cities perticularly which fall in low lying areas..and thanx for the post..it was really very good.

  2. Anuja, thank you for providing info about this unusual flood in home area. It must have been very scary.

    I remember 2005 as being a dry year in North and South America. I wonder if there is (somewhere on the internet) yearly precipitation data with a local resolution, so that we can see, for example, if higher precipitation in India correlates with lower precipitation in the Americas?

    “65 percent of Mumbai city was originally just water and that it was reclaimed later.”
    Are there levees/dikes protecting the reclaimed land from the open sea?
    The Dutch have lots of experience protecting their country from flooding: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flood_control_in_the_Netherlands

      1. Thanks for the like. Your post was really well done. Hopefully theyre more prepared for the future

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