Behind the July 2 monsoon flooding lies the city’s crumbling drainage and poor coordination among development agencies
By Kiran Tare
Mumbai July 9, 2019
Heavy rain continues to lash Mumbai city causing water logging in low lying areas and also disruption in local train services as rail tracks submerged in the water. Photo by Mandar Deodhar
On July 2, as life in Mumbai once again crashed to a halt under a monsoon battering, among the thousands left stranded in knee-deep waters was Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. Thackeray, whose party has ruled the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) since 1997, could not step out of his residence, ‘Matoshree’, in Bandra as the area remained flooded for almost 10 hours. His son Aditya managed to get out with the help of friends to inspect the affected areas. Hours later, Aditya concluded that it was the 374 mm of rainfall, the second heaviest downpour in a day in 45 years, and not the BMC that was responsible for the mess. “No city corporation in any part of the world could have sustained in such heavy rains,” Aditya reasoned.
Mumbai, a reclaimed cluster of seven islands — Colaba, Little Colaba, Isle of Bombay, Mazgaon, Parel, Worli and Mahim — receives an average 2,386 mm of rainfall every year, waterlogging the low-lying parts of central Mumbai during heavy downpours. Till 2000, the city’s drainage coped well with the rains, flushing out the water into the sea within hours. Unplanned development and the BMC’s inefficiency in maintaining and upgrading the city’s drainage in the past two decades have severely aggravated the waterlogging problem.
A view of Sion Railway Station as heavy rains slow down Mumbai. (Photo by Mandar Deodhar)
The BMC is the richest civic body in Asia. Its annual budget for 2018-19 was Rs 27,258 crore. This fiscal, it has presented a budget of Rs 30,692 crore. The municipality spends 18 per cent of its budget on civic infrastructure, but that does not reflect in the city’s preparedness for rains. Authorities say Mumbai’s storm-water drains have the capacity to carry only 50 mm of rain-water an hour. After the deluge of July 26, 2005, when 944 mm of rainfall in a day kept Mumbai submerged for two days, the civic body had undertaken a project to upgrade the drainage system. Fourteen years on, the Brihanmumbai Storm Water Disposal System (BRIMSTOWAD) project has completed the revamp of only 20 storm-water drains, out of the city’s 51. More than Rs 20,000 crore has already been spent on the project.
Experts say sewerage passing through storm-water drains, too, is affecting their water-carrying capacity. BMC commissioner Praveen Pardeshi, an IAS officer, has assured that the corporation will take measures to prevent sewage water from entering storm-water drains. Town planner Amita Bhide says the city’s development agencies need macro-planning and better coordination to show results.
Therein lies the problem. At present, nine agencies, including the BMC, Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Maharashtra government, railways and Airports Authority of India, have a say in the city’s development. Poor coordination among them affects planning. Every year, the BMC and MMRDA blame each other for the poor condition of roads in the city. The BMC blames the railways for not cleaning the sewage drains falling in its domain. The railways have an excellent public announcements system, using which messages can be delivered across suburban railway stations in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. The system can also be used for alerting people in case floods or other calamities, but remains untapped.
Citizen’s group ‘Mumbai First’ is of the opinion that the city needs a CEO position at the helm, who can work independently without pressure from the politicians.
Thackeray has been arguing for years that the BMC be empowered as the sole planning and development authority for Mumbai. The present mayor is a decorative post, with all execution powers concentrated in the hands of the BMC commissioner, who is a representative of the state government. Thackeray is also not averse to the idea of electing the mayor directly from among the people and enjoying executive powers to order other agencies on planning and development issues. The hurdle is no agency wants to lose control over Maximum City and the revenue it generates for it.
Not a drop to drink…
A weak monsoon and years of draining groundwater have parched Chennai, a city of nearly five million people on the southeastern coast of India.Residents collecting water delivered by a tanker in the Royapettah district in Chennai, India, last month.CreditRebecca Conway for The New York Times
By Somini Sengupta
July 11, 2019
CHENNAI, India — When the water’s gone, you bathe in what drips out of the air-conditioner. You no longer allow yourself the luxury of an evening shower at the end of a steamy summer’s day. You sprint down two flights of stairs with plastic pots as soon as a neighbor tells you the water tanker is coming.
Every day, 15,000 tankers ferry water from the countryside into the city. Everywhere you look, rows of bright neon plastic water pots are lined up along the lanes, waiting.
This is life in Chennai, a city of nearly five million on India’s southeastern coast.
The rains from last year’s monsoon season were exceptionally weak. By the time summer came with its muggy, draining heat, the city’s four major water reservoirs had virtually run dry.
Chennai has struggled with water for years. Either there’s not enough rain or there’s way too much rain, which floods in the streets before trickling out into the Bay of Bengal.
But the problem is not just the caprice of nature. Gone are the many lakes and fields that once swallowed the rains. They have since been filled in and built over. Land is too expensive to be left fallow.
Even groundwater is spent in many neighborhoods, over-extracted for years as a regular source of water, rather than replenished and stored as a backup.Residents after collecting water.CreditRebecca Conway for The New York Times
And so now, little comes out of Bhanu Baskar’s taps at home, which is why she skips a shower on the days she doesn’t need to go out. She saves the water for her grown children, who both have office jobs and who both need a daily shower.
“It’s very uncomfortable,” said Ms. Baskar, 48, trying to hide her shame. “It’s very tough.”
“It’s not hygienic, also,” she said.
Chennai was primed for this crisis. The city gets most of its water each year from the short, heavy monsoon that begins in October and a few pre-monsoon showers. The trick is to capture what comes and save it for the lean times.
Chennai requires every building to catch the rainwater from its rooftops and pour it back into the earth, but that has not been enough to stop either drought or flood. So the city spends huge amounts of money scooping water from the sea, churning it through expensive desalination plants and converting it into water that residents can use.
Sekhar Raghavan, 72, a lifelong Chennai resident and the city’s most outspoken supporter of better rainwater harvesting, finds this absurd.
Houses on the edge of a lake in the Velachery neighborhood in Chennai. The area has seen rapid growth, some of which has occurred on a former lake-bed.CreditRebecca Conway for The New York Times
“Some of us knew this crisis would come,” he said. “For us, in Chennai, harvesting means putting every drop of water back into the ground.”
And then there’s climate change. It doesn’t bear direct blame for Chennai’s water crisis, but it makes it worse.
The city is hotter than before. Maximum temperatures have on average gone up by 1.3 degrees Celsius (or over 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1950, according to Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist with the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. In an already hot tropical city — often above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and very humid in the summer — that means water evaporates faster and the demand for it rises.
The seeds of the crisis can be found in Velachery, a neighborhood named after one of Chennai’s many lakes. The lake was once deep and wide, but as the city grew, portions of it were filled in 20 years ago to make room for private homes.
P. Jeevantham was one of the first residents in Velachery when it was developed. He built a slender, three-story apartment building, and manages a tiny shop selling everyday provisions on the ground floor.
What remained of the lake was deep and clean back then. That didn’t last for long. Because the city’s water supply was erratic, Mr. Jeevantham drilled a bore well to draw up water from the aquifer beneath Chennai. So did all his neighbors, up and down the block.
Subscribe for original insights, commentary and discussions on the major news stories of the week, from columnists Max Fisher and Amanda Taub.SIGN UPThe Puzhal reservoir in Chennai, India, in April 2018 and April 2019.CreditMaxar Technologies, via Associated Press
Today, Mr. Jeevantham, 60, runs his motor seven hours a day to satisfy the needs of his own family of four and their tenants. It slurps water from 80 feet under the ground, slowly draining from the lake.
“The lake is God’s gift,” he marveled. But for how much longer? This, he didn’t know. “Maybe five years,” he said, laughing uncomfortably.
Today the lake is a shallow, gray-green oasis, bordered on the edges by invasive weeds and trash, including, in one corner, a black and yellow, broken-down rickshaw.
Near the city center, the groundwater is nearly gone. Dev Anand, 30, still lives in his childhood home in the Anna Nagar area. For much of his life, his family relied on what city water came through the pipes. When that wasn’t enough, they drew water from under the ground. This summer, that dried up. For a few weeks, his neighbor shared his water. Then his groundwater dried up too.
Mr. Anand, who is active with a civil society group that raises awareness about water, now relies on city tankers. He calls, complains, waits, worries.
The entire neighborhood is on tenterhooks. No one knows when their bore wells will be exhausted. People are still drilling more wells all over the city, draining the aquifer further and faster. Trying to catch fish by hand in a pool of water on the lake bed of the Puzhal Lake.CreditRebecca Conway for The New York Times
Every now and then comes a sprinkling of pre-monsoon showers. Those, too, seem to leave the city no sooner than they enter it. The water reservoirs have been cleared of silt and trash.
The city says it dispatches more than 9,000 water tankers on any given day, more than ever before; private companies supply another 5,000 tankers.
A steady stream of people line up at a public tap outside the city waterworks near Mr. Anand’s house. An auto-rickshaw driver said he came every afternoon with his wife and two children to fill up six big jugs. Men on scooters dangled their water pots on either side.
Everyone has their water-saving hacks. Rinse the rice, then use the water to wash the fish. Empty the dirty dishwater into the potted plants. Never, ever leave the tap running.
Forsake the washing machine, and hand wash everything with two carefully rationed buckets of water. To avoid a fight, fill only four pots when the water tanker arrives. Only once everyone has had their share should you consider going back for more.Women use a hand-pump to collect water at an apartment complex whose buildings are not connected to a central water supply in the OMR district of Chennai.CreditRebecca Conway for The New York Times
And then there’s the air-conditioner. Everyone collects its drip. One day, when Rushyant Baskar woke up after working the night shift and turned on his water pump, a dry wheezing sound was all he heard. The buckets were empty, except the one under the air-conditioner. It was the only water he had.
“At that point, we thought we must get out of Chennai,” said Mr. Baskar, 28, who talks to clients in the United States at an outsourcing center. “It was devastating.”
These days, his family increasingly relies on the generosity of neighbors. Someone orders a private water tank and shares. As soon as a city water tanker shows, neighbors text — and the Baskars rush out with their jugs.
It is exhausting, all this waiting, worrying and keeping vigil for water. Mr. Baskar said he was sleeping less than usual. His mother said she hadn’t had time to check in with relatives on the other side of town. It used to be that you came to the big city to chase money, Mr. Baskar said. “Now we run after water.”A woman carrying water collected from a hand pump.CreditRebecca Conway for The New York Times
What do you do to save it?
“We have a washing machine and a dishwasher in our house. I know they can add up to gallons and gallons of wasted water, so I make sure that every run is a full-load”.Maria Günter
“I bought a bucket. I started taking bucket showers in the evening”.Meenu Gupta
“Being raised in Russia I was not taught how to reduce your water consumption. A couple of years back I realized the problem and started little. Now when I wash dishes I switch off the water and use a separate bucket to put my soapy plates there and then rinse everything at once”.Alisa Murzenko
“I don’t do a lot if anything at all. Wait, I don’t let the water running when I brush my teeth, does this count?”Lisa Rubekina
“I stopped taking full showers every day. They are unnecessary.”Jelle Warring