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For a thirsty India, rains a mixed blessing

The race is on to expand Mumbai's drainage system. But is the city expanding too fast?

mumbaikars wade flood
People wade through a flooded underpass road during monsoon rains in Mumbai, June 16, 2010. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

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.