A case of ecological illiteracy: Mumbai flood

I was 15 when Mumbai submerged. 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 happened so quickly that soon water was everywhere.

We lived in a two-storey house. We moved our precious belongings to the upper floor. We couldn’t move everything such as the bed frame and the fridge. We mounted the fridge on the bed. We then chained two big blue water storage barrels in the fear that they would get dragged 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 through the deep water. My mother cooked them for me and my cousin as we were the youngest of the bunch. My 95 year old great grandmother lived with us then. She lived a 115 years old! Fighter she was and loved life.

Boy what a day for my cousin and my uncle to visit us. They came from Ratnagiri a place that will never see a flood, a hilly area way above the sea-level.

So far, everyone is safe.

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.

Imagine us rushing with our great grandmother in the direction the mob was taking us. We left everything behind in search for a safe haven. We had no time to put her shoes on for her and neither did we. I still remember her soft feet and how they got dragged into this. Not to mention, she was partially handicapped and bent at her waist.

We managed to reach a temple nearby 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. Looking back I am proud that I was able to comfort her without losing it myself.

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 not 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. I remember them putting me to sleep with their feet under water.

Why did 26 July 2005 happen?

A 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 the same series, 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 ‘dying’ river. Magsaysay Award-winning water conservation activist Rajendra Singh has been a 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

 

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.

    Like

  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

    Like

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