September 01, 2019

Urban flooding

Tikender Singh Panwar

MUCH awaited monsoons in the country may be deficient in rainfall, but flooding even with scant rainfall has become a common phenomenon. The cities happens to be the worst resilient with the kind of infrastructure that has been constructed over the years. This leads to loss of lives and property. Just in three states, Maharashtra, Kerala and Karnataka, 227 people have died and the number may be higher as there are a large number of missing persons. More than 350 deaths are reported from across the country as severe flooding and landslides in Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar and Punjab have claimed more lives. More than two lakh displaced people had to be shifted to shelters and hundreds of villages were left behind by the people because of inundation.

The economic loss is also colossal. It is estimated that every year there is a loss of over three per cent of the GDP. The central water commission has estimated that since 1957 to 2017, 1,07,457 people have died in floods and nearly Rs 3,68,868 crore loss of infrastructure has taken place owing to loss of houses, roads, bridges etc. In the state of Maharashtra, there is a reported loss of Rs 50,000 crores due to the floods in the last two months. These losses include damage to property, loss of animals and dairy business and crops.


A large number of the cities in the country too were under water. Some of the cities like Mumbai and Kochi are reportedly experiencing regular flooding. Urban flooding is specific in the fact that the cause is lack of drainage in an urban area and faulty planning. The UNEP(United Nations Environment Programme) terms the flooding of cities as artificial and not natural. By artificial it means that floods in the cities happen because of the way the cities are constructed. The way infrastructure is designed in the cities compounds the problem of urban flooding. And, not to lose sight of absence of the way cities have been built, occupying the land mass and leaving little space for water sequestration, badly designed and constructed storm water drains, which instead of collecting the storm water spills it more on the roads and the localities. And not to miss the absence of rain water harvesting in the cities which also leads to flooding.

Let us consider the example of Delhi.  In this city there were 611 natural water bodies that were responsible for collecting the rain water and acted like reservoirs. Not just that, these were also able to maintain the ecological balance of the region. Out of the 611 water bodies, 190 are completely lost; either occupied by the real estate or converted into a park. A big number of 274 water bodies have dried up. There are various reasons for it. Either the water channels leading to these bodies have been infringed or there may be blockage of the drains that led water to these bodies. Interestingly, Delhi gets 580 million cubic litres of rainfall in the season, nearly 300 million cubic litres gets drained off and creates flooding in the city.

Just a cursory look at the three decades of old satellite maps of the cities can explain how the city’s water channels have been blocked. Gurgaon is an interesting example of it. In Gurgaon the water channels that led rain water to two major lakes have completely been blocked. One may recollect the shooting of a serial ‘Fauji’, which led to the projection of Shahrukh Khan as an actor. The lake around which the shoots were done and in which he had nearly drowned is now completely dry.

With the construction of flyovers, housing projects and the metro, the natural channels of water have been blocked thus leading to massive flooding in the city. There is a famous saying in Gurgaon that it is not just the rain that scares the population even the accumulation of clouds is enough to lead to such a fear. Gurgaon is an interesting example where the city has got constructed without a master plan. The city was developed initially by the private developer and then the master plan was created. In Delhi at least there is a master plan which is getting updated in the present year.


The initiatives of successive government’s post 1990s have been to achieve desired growth in the cities by developing projects instead of a policy shift in development, which should have been to integrate many agencies working on the ground. JNNURM (Jawahar Lal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission), RAY (Rajeev Awas Yojana) followed by the SCM(Smart City Mission), AMRUT(Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation)  etc., all speak the same language of project driven urbanisation. There have been many instances when the sheer design of the project has dismantled the contouring of the region thus leading to blockage of water bodies and causing flooding. The new Andhra Pradesh capital in Amravati is another disaster in the offing as urban experts’ term it. The capital is being constructed on the low-lying areas where there are large numbers of water bodies. Amravati will be the future Chennai they say, and, it was proven when recently, as reported in the press, water had entered the compound of the former chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu.


The urban flooding is not just a problem of planning but also of multiplicity of urban governance. Each city has a different governance structure. Some of the smaller cities are just left to manage garbage and infrastructure projects are done by some state government run parastatals. In some of the cities, there are many tiers of ownership and governance on infrastructure. Take for example in Delhi, the water dropping from the top of the metro track, owned by the DMRC, falls on the road, taken care by the Delhi state government and eventually enters the storm water drains managed by the municipal corporation. None, speaks to each other. One can find at many places that the water from the metro does not fall through the drain pipes rather falls directly on the road and damages it. A simple way of integration could have been to harvest the rain water directly from the metro track and use it suitably. But without an integration of governance such a system cannot evolve.

Apart from the multiplicity of agencies another major problem is the engineering which in which the storm water drains are constructed. Take the example of a mountain city, Shimla. Since British times, storm water drains were constructed with embankments of stone. This was done to ensure that the water does not gush in the drain and percolates slowly to avoid flooding and also to recharge a large number of water springs in the adjacent vicinity. Recently, the Asian Development Bank has funded a ‘beautiful city’ project in Shimla. The worst that could have happened in the beautification plan is the covering of the storm water drains with concrete and porcelain. This has made the main Mall Road cleaner, definitely, but has increased the velocity of the water in the larger drains that causes flooding. Similarly, in the ‘level’ cities the best method of constructing a drain is to concretise it, which then gets filled with muck and the water instead of moving ahead gets spilled over on the roads and various localities. In Delhi there are a large number of examples with such construction of drains.


Suptendu Biswas, an urban planner points out that exactly 50 years ago a book titled “Design With Nature”, authored by Ian McHarg was originally published in 1969, which emphasises on the multifunctional landscapes design paradigm. It focuses on the natural, social and cultural processes and sees design as an iterative process that is shaped by interactions between humans and ecosystems. Suptendu says that the planners have forgotten the essence of this approach of bringing the community of the people and the diverse aspects of the landscape planning together. Planning has become a mechanical process which is extremely dangerous. John Closs, the former executive director of UN Habitat III has reiterated several times that we have to go back to the basics of planning and need to get rid of the laissez faire, i.e., the market will dominate the planning process.

The role of the State in guaranteeing ample number of planners to the field cannot be ruled out. Romi Khosla, another city planner of the country with repute in South Asia says that we all know that there is a shortage of planners and architects in the cities, especially the smaller towns. He suggests that there should be a national service by the pass outs of the planning and architecture colleges and at least one year, as part of the internship programme, they should be sent to the smaller towns to prepare their land use and infrastructure plans. This will be a win-win situation for both the cities and the students. The interface shall help the students to understand more about the basics of planning.

There are also examples of the citizens’ partnerships which definitely break the darkness. One of the examples is the passion in which one million(10 lakh) wells are being dug in the city of Bangalore. These wells are dug by the traditional community of the region and the wells are in the backyard of the houses, which will be filled through rain water. This shall serve twin purpose, using the rain water effectively and reducing flooding of the streets. Another example is the five kilometres stretch of nullah converted into a cleaner water stream and a walking space in Gurgaon. The technology is simple; it uses the storm water to recharge the nullah and the earlier sewer water flowing in to the nullah has been blocked and treated. The place now become a walkers paradise in a city like Gurgaon . There are several such initiatives by the citizens groups but these are insufficient to meet the scale at which we are talking about. The scale can only be filled by an effective integration of planning, execution, governance, transparency and accountability. And, the State has to act on it.