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India’s cities: Sitting on a flood bomb

India’s cities: Sitting on a flood bomb
India is urbanising at an alarming rate. According to the Union Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD), 31 per cent of the country was urbanised in 2011. The Ministry says almost 50 per cent of the country will be urbanised by 2050. MoUD data also suggests a 54 per cent increase in the number of cities and towns between 2001 and 2011. And this rapid urbanisation has happened without proper planning, say hydrologists. “There is a complete disconnect between geological and hydrogeological cycles and urban planning,” says Saswat Bandyopadhyay, Head, Department of Environmental Planning, Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University, Gujarat.

The problem of floods in urban areas became so acute that in 2010, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) recognised urban floods as different from riverine floods. It said urban floods “happen in a relatively short period of time and can inundate an area with several feet of water”. It also said that urbanisation creates artificial catchments which increase the flood intensity by six times as opposed to riverine floods. Consequently, flooding occurs quickly in urban areas. Delhi-based hydrogeologist Partha Sarathi Datta says, “Studying topography, drainage, rainfall and soil lithology of catchments plays an important role in urban planning, but sadly good detailed studies are not available.” 

The effects of unplanned urbanisation are already visible. The mangrove cover in Mumbai reduced from 28 per cent to 18 per cent between 1925 and 1994. In the same period, the city’s built-up area increased from 12 to 52 per cent. Srinagar lost almost 50 per cent of its waterbodies between 1911 and 2004. This was the major reason for the 2014 floods in the city. Bengaluru, which had 262 lakes in the 1960s, has only 10 lakes that can be called healthy.

Chennai suffers from the same problems. Last year’s devastating floods were a testament to this fact. The three rivers in the city—Cooum, Adyar, and Kosathalaiyar—are highly encroached upon and that has reduced the amount of water runoff into the Bay of Bengal. The city has four sewerage treatment plants at four centres, but the treated water that flows through natural channels often gets mixed with untreated wastewater from colonies and industries on the way.

Even the city’s numerous waterbodies and marshlands that should have acted as sponges are either encroached upon or over polluted. For example, in 2011, the Pallikarni marshland, the city’s biggest flood sink, was reduced to just 12 per cent of its size before Independence. The marshland, which was once spread over 5,000 ha, now houses government buildings and research institutes and a dump yard that is gradually growing in size. The area of the Perungudi dump yard, located on the north-eastern part of the marsh, doubled—from 32 ha in 2002-03 to 75 ha in 2013, according to Tamil Nadu State Land Use Research Board. The areas affected by sewage and solid waste dumping doubled between 2003 and 2005, says a research by Care Earth, a Chennai-based research institute.

M Sakthivel of the Department of Geography, University of Madras, says that the groundwater in the marshland is highly polluted due to garbage dumping. Experts also say groundwater recharge, which is essential for flood mitigation, has reduced substantially because of urbanisation.

Apathy of government departments is the main reason for the degradation of urban wetlands and channels. The 2010 Wetland Rules, for example, do not have enough teeth to protect waterbodies. To protect a wetland under the rules, the state government needs to identify the waterbodies and then prepare a document. This document gets reviewed by the Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority and finally the comments are sent to the Union government, which then notifies a wetland to be protected. Hence, if a state misses any polluted lake, it will be neglected—unless citizens approach the court. “Since urban lakes have a unique ecosystem, there is a need for strong protection laws,” says Jasveen Jairath, convener of Save Our Urban Lakes, a citizens’ initiative for saving waterbodies in Hyderabad.

So what should be done? According to Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment, urban planners should undertake a detailed mapping of waterbodies, natural drainage and flood-prone areas in cities using remote sensing. And then integrate the drainage system of the city including rivers, rivulets, ponds, lakes and other natural drainage systems. The non-profit also suggests policymakers to relook the development plans approved by city authorities and find out whether they violate the hydrological cycle of the city. Finally, it calls for stronger laws to protect urban lakes and the setting up of a single authority for the management and restoration of water bodies.

The health hazard
The country needs a separate health policy for disasters, say health experts. Rakhal Gaitonde, Society for Community Health Services, says waiting for the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) team for relief during disaster does not seem to be working. As the frequency of disasters is increasing, there is a need for a clear policy for healthcare during a crisis. Gaitonde says vaccination against diseases such as malaria should be started in vulnerable areas immediately after a disaster. 

He adds that the outreach of public healthcare centres in urban areas is limited, which further hinders rehabilitation work. “Unlike rural areas, more than 80 per cent people in urban centres are dependent on private healthcare,” says he. Though the government checks water pollution, and epidemiological vulnerability, it is unable to cover 100 per cent of the affected population. 

Experts also say that health departments should have a say while giving consent to development projects. 

Chennai-based environment journalist S Gopikrishna Warrier says disease outbreaks are not factored in while planning for disaster management. Chennai-based health researcher Nityanand Jayaraman says the challenge is to prevent an outbreak during a crisis. “There should be clear strategies to handle the people out of any extreme situations. During the recent floods, there was no idea on where to shift people and how to provide them with basic facilities such as clean water and first aid.”

On the other hand, Vinod Kumar Sharma, professor and disaster management convener at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, Delhi, says that the existing national disaster management policy is sufficient to handle disasters, but the provisions are not being implemented properly. Sharma, who was a part of the team that drafted the National Policy in 2009, says medical components, including reproductive healthcare, are included under the relief provisions. “Only the implementation has to be strengthened.”
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