For a thirsty India, rains a mixed blessing

MUMBAI, India — Just a month back Mumbai had such a bad water shortage that some families went four or five days without a drop in their faucet. People broke open pipes to steal water. The local press covered fights between neighbors over access to a tap and water-related stress sending more people to psychologists’ offices.

The city was on edge, blistering hot and waiting for the skies to open. Finally, like it does every year, the monsoon arrived. Mumbaikars rejoiced in the streets last week as the city welcomed the First Rains, referred to in India like a proper noun.

But the monsoon is not all hot chai and onion bhajias. It also wreaks havoc, bringing with it the potential for floods, train disruptions, endless traffic, damaged buildings and an increase in diseases like malaria and dengue.

“I don’t know if I should be happy or sad when the monsoon comes,” said Nidhi Jamwal, a senior correspondent with "Down To Earth," a magazine published by the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment. “It’s something like a paradox for all Mumbaikars.”

Mumbai receives 80 to 90 inches of rainfall every monsoon season, which lasts from June to October. About 70 percent of that occurs in July and August, and about 50 percent comes in just two or three events, according to Kapil Gupta, a civil engineering professor at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

When a particularly heavy rain coincides with a high tide on the Arabian Sea, the water has nowhere to go and the entire city floods. This happens about one to three times a year, said Gupta. One day of extreme rainfall caused flooding that left more than 600 people dead and damaged more than 100,000 buildings on July 26, 2005, when 37 inches of rain fell on the city over 24 hours. Mumbai’s entire transport and communication system shut down.

Even a normal monsoon shower, which takes place about 30 to 40 times a season, can cause mayhem in Mumbai as streets in low-lying areas get inundated with as much as two to three feet of water. People get trapped, some cannot make it to school or work and those who live in slums on the banks of a river without proper drainage systems can have their home submerged in water.

This is so common, though, that many don’t even count it as flooding.

“When it’s small, you say water-logging. When it rises to your chest, head, you call it flooding,” said Mumbai-based environmentalist Girish Raut.

Asked about last week’s rains that knocked down a wall, caused accidents and forced people to walk through water up past their knees, Gupta said with a laugh: “That was nothing! For Bombay, we say flooding when the entire city gets flooded.”

Sunil Saberwal, the chief executive officer of Bombay First, an organization that works on infrastructure and waste management, said the media blows things out of proportion. With 18 million people, more than half of whom live in slums, the rains are bound to cause problems. The focus should be on preventing major calamities like the floods of 2005 that stopped all traffic, closed down the airport and halted the delivery of food into the city, he said.

Raut argues that while “the real drama” will not hit Mumbai until July, even the recurrent water-logging is unacceptable.

Mumbai’s flooding problems are related to the city’s rapid development, population growth and inadequate drainage system, according to specialists.

Mumbai began as seven islands, through which water flowed naturally, Raut said as he sat on the floor of his home-office with a collection of old photographs and Google maps of Mumbai. In the 18th century the British decided to begin joining the islands together by filling the sea. Those areas are now called “reclamation” areas.

The British turned parts of the sea into land and they — as well as the Indian government after independence — “went on reclaiming, reclaiming, reclaiming,” Raut said. “But there is no question of ‘reclaim,’ it never belonged to you. From that word, the problem begins.”

Joining the islands together created the city of Mumbai, but it also killed much of the area’s wetlands and mangroves, which absorb water and provide a natural barrier between land and sea. About 75 percent of the city’s wetlands have been destroyed, Raut said.

During a recent afternoon at what is now called Bandra Reclamation, cars, rickshaws and SUVs cruised along a highway. The area, which used to be a river filled with mangroves, now houses the National Stock Exchange as well as dilapidated slums.

When it rains, the areas of the city on reclaimed land that are still below sea-level, fill with water. About a quarter of Mumbai areas are low-lying, according to a report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, which argues that climate change is expected to cause the sea level to rise 0.1 inch a year in India, causing even further flooding.

Mumbai’s fast and often unplanned development has reduced the availability of free soil, which would normally absorb water. In towns and healthy environments, 20 to 30 percent of rainfall seeps into the ground, but in Mumbai, virtually none of the rainfall can do so because of the concretization of the city, said Shyam Asolekar, a professor at the Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

Migrants who move to the city and cannot find affordable housing build shanties anywhere they can find space, according to water specialists. They often set up a shack on the flood plain of a river and open storm water drains, disrupting the flow of water.

Down To Earth correspondent Nidhi Jamwal argues that much of the public blames slum-dwellers for the flooding but that the government is guilty of the same thing: taking land and building on it.

“A few plastic bags cannot lead to flooding like what happened in 2005,” she said. “The problem is there is no empty space in this city for water to hold.”

The city’s drainage system was built during the British era and is inadequate, said Gupta. Areas are being renewed, but the process is expensive and slow. The 2005 floods served as a wake up call and the city is now working to redesign the city’s drains to accommodate more water.

On the one hand, the city is taking steps to mitigate the effects of flooding. On the other hand, the city’s rapid development continues. The two are likely to balance each other out, and the status quo, he said, will remain.