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Our cities need to adapt to prevent urban flooding

The floods in Gurugram and Bengaluru are examples of planning failures. The severe disruption of natural drainage systems and construction over water channels add to the woes
Last Updated : 04 September 2023, 05:43 IST
Last Updated : 04 September 2023, 05:43 IST
Last Updated : 04 September 2023, 05:43 IST
Last Updated : 04 September 2023, 05:43 IST

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Many states across India are currently facing floods, from the Barabanki and Gonda districts in Uttar Pradesh to Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, and from Punjab to Assam

Urban flood disasters have increased incrementally over the last three decades. According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) the most notable cities flooded in this period are: Hyderabad in 2000, Ahmedabad in 2001, Mumbai in 2005, Surat in 2006, Kolkata in 2007, Jamshedpur in 2008, Guwahati in 2010, Srinagar in 2014, Bengaluru in 2022, Chennai in 2004 and 2015, and Delhi in 2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, and 2023. Even the desert town of Barmer saw floods in June. Currently, the mountain towns in Himachal Pradesh are witnessing one of the worst floodings, which then has triggered massive landslides.

Subcontinent threat

In a reply to a question in Rajya Sabha, the government said that across India over 17,000 people died in floods and heavy rains between 2012 and 2021. 

Considering the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), specifically Reports VI and the findings of Working Groups 1, 2, and 3, the occurrence of these disasters should not come as a surprise. The IPCC report, which is a comprehensive effort by global climate scientists, issues a caution for the Indian subcontinent, indicating that two specific zones — the coastal areas and the Himalayas — are poised to experience a rise in extreme climate events with a shift in rainfall patterns.

Anticipated trends include a heightened intensity of rainfall occurring withing shorter timeframes. If the urban infrastructure is not climate resilient, flooding and landslides are quite imminent.

According to the NDMA, “the urban heat island effect has resulted in an increase in rainfall over urban areas. Global Climate Change is resulting in changed weather patterns and increased episodes of high intensity rainfall events occurring in shorter periods of time. Then the threat of sea-level rise is also looming large, threatening all the coastal cities. Cities/towns located on the coast, on river banks, upstream/downstream of dams, inland cities and in hilly areas can all be affected.” 

Such episodes have increased in frequency in the last few decades. Development in urban India, which kicked in during the mid-1990s, got linked to the global ideology of reforming land laws, making land easily available for the ‘real estate’ to construct housing projects, and promoting the idea of competition among cities. The process was further enhanced with the project-oriented approach embedded in Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), and in the recent Smart City Mission (SCM).

Blind race

This blind race was one of the major reasons in usurping the urban commons, water bodies, ruining water channels, disturbing water contours, converting open spaces that acted as water sponges into housing projects, and much more.

Our cities expanded at an unprecedented pace. In the period 1991-2001, 221 towns and cities had emerged, whereas this figure was 100 in the preceding decade of 1981-1991. The confluence of rapid development, poor planning, and the impact of Climate Change led to frequent urban flooding. Recurrent instances of inundated streets, disrupted lives, and economic losses have highlighted the urgent need to address this issue comprehensively.

Every city has its peculiarities and is adapted or un-adapted to flood risks in a manner of its historic evolution. However, there are some common arenas which need a universal approach for minimising loss from urban floods.

Drainage system: A primary reason for urban flooding is the inadequate drainage infrastructure. Many urban areas lack well-designed stormwater drains capable of handling heavy rainfall events. Improper planning, impervious surfaces like roads and buildings that prevent water from seeping into the ground, thus overwhelming the insufficient drainage systems contribute to this. Concretising the drains and not allowing the water to percolate to the ground further compounds the problem. 

Urbanisation: Rapid urbanisation, both planned and unplanned, is also responsible for flooding. Take for example the construction of flyovers, widening of roads, urban settlements, or what is called ‘grey’ infrastructure in a planned manner, duly approved by the authorities, but in waterlogged areas — they all contribute towards urban flooding. The floods in Gurugram and Bengaluru are examples of such planning failures. The severe disruption of natural drainage systems adds to the woes.

Another failure is the construction of highways traversing water bodies which feed rivers and streams. Take, for example, the ‘Kisan Path’ in Lucknow-circular road. It has affected the Kukrail River and has blocked the drainage near the origin of the river.

Improper waste disposal practices also contribute to flooding.

Loss of urban commons 

Many cities have witnessed encroachment and illegal construction on water bodies and in urban green patches or mini forests. This results in reduced water storage capacity and disrupts the natural flow of water leading to increased flooding during heavy rains.

To ensure that we make our cities resilient, liveable, and safer, we need a multifaceted approach. This hinges on planning which centrally includes ‘Cityzens’ and outlines short-term and medium-term collective action plans.

Here are some steps we can take in that direction.

Climate atlas: Before a development plan, every town and city must prepare its climate plan of action and a climate atlas with active participation of the people. The vulnerable points must be identified, water contouring must be done, and the damaging of water bodies or water channels must be checked. Capacity building must be done to adapt to flooding and other climate disasters. 

Sustainable urban planning: Cities need to embrace sustainable planning practices that consider the natural topography and hydrology of the region. In addition to preserving water bodies, green spaces that can absorb excess water must be integrated into the plan. Flood resilient infrastructure must be built that includes very minimum engagement with the water contours. Improved drainage systems can help in combating flooding. Improved water management methods by enhancing waste collection and segregation must be practiced. A protocol of clearing the drains during summer months must be followed. Early warning systems play an important role in minimising the loss to human lives.

To minimise the loss due to urban flooding, we need a multi-faceted approach for effective mitigation. Climate resilient strategies strongly rooted in a pro-people approach and a complete ‘no’ to occupying water bodies must be the priority to meet the challenge of urban flooding.

(Sandeep Chachra is Executive Director, Action Aid India, and Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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Published 04 September 2023, 05:43 IST

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