Why do Indian cities witness frequent floods?

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Census 2011 suggests that Urban proportion has gone up from 17.3% in 1951 to 31.2% in 2011. A survey conducted by the UN – ‘State of the World Population 2007’ report – suggests that nearly 40% of the population in India is going to reside in cities by 2030. However, urban land use in India is merely 2.35% of the country’s total land area. In other words, by 2030, 40% of the Indian population is going to live only in 2.35% of the space. Thus, population stress in cities is the logical conclusion.

Consequently, in order to manage these dynamics, the environment becomes the weakest link. Thus, people transgressed mother nature. It is rightly said in Hinduism that “karma” always hits you back, but how badly it hits you depends upon the karmic intensity which is coming back. Nature reverts back to “Karma” in the form of an urban flood. Almost all major Indian cities like Chennai (2015), Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Mumbai, etc faced flood in cities.

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Why Indian cities are sinking?

There are various factors play simultaneously that are responsible for sinking cities. For example, after LPG reforms in the 90s, people started walking to cities. Increasing population pressure demanded new accommodations and buildings. The easy availability of finances and high prices of houses attracted builders from the prism of profit. Corruption in the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, and builders started filling water reservoirs of the cities for making high buildings. Basically, water reservoirs act as shock absorbers that take out extra water from the roads. Consequently, the capacity of the natural drains has decreased and led to flooding.

Apart from the encroachment of drainage channels, climate change is another reason. It has caused an increase in the frequency of short-duration heavy rainfall that leads to high water runoff. Increasing concretization in cities increases the heat of the cities. Similarly, Global cybersecurity firm Kaspersky estimates over 75% of a data center’s electricity becomes waste heat. Vehicles used in cities for going to offices and electrical appliances like AC and Refrigerators in homes and offices add heat to the city. These heats form ‘Urban heat Island’.

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A study conducted by NASA shows that Urban heat Island increases rainfall over urban areas that in turn leads to flooding. Whenever rain-bearing could pass through urban areas, hot air from the cities due to urban heat islands pushes the cloud up. It leads to highly localized rainfall with high intensity. The drainage system of cities failed to bear highly intensified rains. Along with this, largely Indian cities are based on relics of the past. Thus, there has been no substantial innovation and improvement in this area. Thus, drainage systems are choked. From the administrative point of view, it is not regularly cleaned.

Why we are not serious about it?

It is true that we are witnessing it but we are not paying proper attention to it. First, We lack ambassadors for the environment. New social movements especially in the context of the environment are in the passive phase today. Those who speak for the environment is easily targeted as “enemy of the environment” or “agent of foreign countries”. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s report has shown that India’s overall crime cases increased by 28% in 2020. But cases under the ‘environment-related offenses’ category increased by 78% in the country in the same year.

Second, is the problem of free riders, where people consume city-provided benefits without paying city taxes. It makes them ignorant about the long-term destruction. From the perspective of people, it benefits the resident due to increased prices of land and getting rents from their houses. Similarly, it benefits the migrant by providing job opportunities, good education, and a healthcare system. Largely, they blame nature rather than the government in power. Third, the tragedy of the commons problem – individuals neglect the well-being of society in the pursuit of personal gain – works as a bulwark against environmental degradation.

Fourth, this degradation has the tacit consent of the political class irrespective of power. In the age of money and muscle power, political parties need money. Thus, the phenomenon of “quid pro quo” can’t be ignored in this context. To some extent, civil society is also responsible. The environment does not get its place in the party’s manifesto. Fifth, the temptation for concretization in people leads to the replacement of permeable soil surfaces with impermeable concrete floors due to rapid urbanization. We are often not aware of the fact that until water percolates down, it would be on the surface in the form of a flood.

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Weaker section of the urban society at receiving end

It is true that urban flood affects the daily life of people. But the weaker section of society becomes more vulnerable to this catastrophe. People living roadside or in slums are punished for the acts done by the elite class. For example, the elite class uses appliances like refrigerators, air conditioners, etc, and personal vehicles for offices. Consequently, climate change due to these acts disturbs the rain cycle and vulnerable people are positioned at the receiving end. Their houses are destroyed and are further cornered by waterborne diseases like Malaria. Daily workers also fail to get work.

From the angle of the middle class, they work very hard by compromising their expenditure to buy houses and vehicles as per their budget. But during the Chennai flood, we have seen that many cars were drowned in water. Loss of property and disturbances in lifestyle creates emotional turmoil in the mental health of the stranded. The recovery process is tiresome and time-consuming that often leads to long-lasting psychological trauma. Along with this, economically, we are losing 3% of its GDP every year due to poor urban planning as revealed in one of the reports of UNEP.

Prospect of Indian cities with blue infrastructure

Urbanization is not new to Indian civilization. India traces its origin to the Indus valley civilization. The civilization is noted for its urban planning, elaborate drainage system, and water supply system. The drainage system of the civilization was impressive. Drains were covered with bricks and sometimes with stone slabs. Sewers were connected to the whole city. We should learn from our glorious civilization and focus on improving urban areas. A smart city mission can’t be successful until all stakeholders of the society keep the same degree of seriousness.

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It is a matter of grave concern that even newer cities are facing this issue. We should focus on developing blue infrastructure along with green ones. It means along with parks and gardens in every sector of cities, there is a need to build water reservoirs in the same fashion. It has multiple benefits – (1) It would take out extra water during the monsoon season and prevent flood situations, (2) It would help in percolating water down to the water table in the locality, (3) It would also help in controlling the temperature of the environment. Consequently, it would reduce the use of AC and electricity.

Apart from this, effective watershed management is needed. As I discussed above, a need for ponds in every sector similar to gardens, there is a need to interlink each other. In this pond, water from roads and roofs should be collected and discharged into it. This pond can be fenced properly in order to avoid any risk. Beside the pond, a walking road can be constructed around it. For making this possible, there is a need for collective consensus for the same. People should be sanitized and this model can be tested as a pilot project in a small town before implementing in big cities.

In conclusion

Today, cities are the engine for the economic growth of any country. So, there is no option for de-urbanization. Sustainable urbanization is the need of the hour to contain the frequent urban flood. Poor and marginalized sections of society should be protected from floods and their consequences. The involvement of people is needed in popularizing it as a serious issue so that it can get its place in the electoral manifesto. Instead of focusing merely on the end i.e., the benefits of the cities, there is also a need to focus on means i.e., sustainable development of cities.

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