Friday, July 24, 2009

CHAPTER 3: THE MUMBAI DELUGE

Every year, numerous cities from around the world endure injuries, property damages and other significant economic losses, as a result of natural disasters including earthquakes, floods and heavy rains. The losses resulting from these disasters cannot be solely attributed to their repeated occurrence. Alternatively, they can be credited to numerous other factors. Large metropolitan cities throughout the world attract millions of people who are on a look out for better job opportunities and a better life-style. These cities are hubs of various revenue generating sectors such as commerce, government, communication and transport and require the support of a complex network of infrastructure, including power supply, telecommunications, roadways, railways, airways and civic amenities such as water supply and drainage systems. Often, this infrastructure ages beyond the point of reliability, is left unattended and is therefore, incapable of catering to the ever-increasing needs of the city’s growing population. This infrastructure is thereby, highly vulnerable to major breakdowns resulting from natural disasters like floods and its breakdown translates into a massive blow to the functioning of all its revenue generating sectors. Mumbai is one such city, which largely depends on its infrastructure for its normal functioning.

As the country’s economic core, Mumbai has been witnessing a constant rise in its population, resulting in a brisk and haphazard development of the city. The “physical infrastructure to support the city’s economy exists, but it has been designed for few and is used by many; it is usually stressed. Moreover, the dense and sometimes, organic patterns of the city’s development are incapable of accommodating the extensions in the infrastructure. Intensive mixed land use is a characteristic of the city of Mumbai.” Furthermore, the government’s drive to accommodate the growth of the city overrides issues, such as improving the infrastructure and formulating natural disaster management plans, to deal with the city’s current climatic scenario and rapid development.

This negligence on the government’s part has reflected on the city in the form of the massive destruction caused by the inundation in 2005 and 2006. The city has witnessed numerous floods in the past. Until a few years back, the citizens associated these floods with a severe disruption and suspension of the city’s train services (Adjoining figure) on an average of twice a year, during the monsoon. The event would lead to a shutdown of the offices, businesses and educational institutions throughout the city. However, the effects of these floods have never been alarming and devastating enough for the city authorities to plan preventive and relief measures.

But, the heavy rainfall of 26th July 2005 and the inundation that occurred in 2005 and 2006 was something that the city had least expected. The weather observatory at Santa Cruz in North Mumbai recorded a rainfall of 944 mm. in a brief time span of 24 hours. However, the Colaba observatory, at Mumbai's southern tip, recorded barely 73 mm of rainfall in the same period. Figure 14 shows the flood prone areas of Mumbai. However, the rainfall over Vihar Lake was 1050 mm, which was even higher than in Santa Cruz. About five years ago, in July 2000, Mumbai had recorded exceptionally heavy rains with Thane recording 45mm, Santa Cruz 37mm and Colaba 250 mm of downpour. But the consequences were not as disastrous as the ones that followed the floods of 2005 and 2006. This goes to show that it was not so much of the rainfall, but the inundation, that was unprecedented. Never before had the metropolis experienced anything like this.

The floods and the Offshore Vortex (an unusual meteorological phenomenon) resulted in about 1000 deaths and misplaced about 100 people. It forced more than 52000 people to evacuate their dwellings and caused the city a financial loss of nearly US $1Billion. Reports, quoting the government officials, stated that these “floods were the worst to hit the city in the past 100 years.” Moreover, the high tides that coupled with the torrential rainfall at its highest intensity, in this sea-facing city, further compounded this disaster.

The deluge came unannounced. Despite moderate warnings from the weather bureau, the rain wreaked havoc. This is because the government and the citizens failed to gauge the gravity of the warnings announcing the impending heavy rains and high tide. They mistook it to be one of the seasonal notices given out by the meteorological department. But in reality, the rains of 2005 brought in the devastating floods that will continue to haunt the people of Mumbai for the rest of their lives. All of the city’s means of communications such as the phone lines and power supply collapsed, thus cutting off the city from the rest of the world. The city’s public transport came to a grinding halt, within hours of the city’s flooding; the airports flooded, resulting in the cancellation or delay of flights. Also, most of the city’s arterial roads such as the LBS road (Adjoing figure), the S.V. Road and major highways, such as the Western Express Highway and the Eastern Express highway in the suburbs were severely affected due to water logging and traffic jams, caused by a mass vehicle breakdown in the floods. The event left thousands of people stranded in the buses, trains and cars. A lot of deaths occurred when people, hoping for the floods to recede, stayed put in their cars and were choked up when their vehicles submerged in the steadily rising levels of the floods. The death toll also rose when those marooned in their work places, made way for their homes and were carried away by the high currents of the floods. Moreover, the termination of the city’s main power supply rendered the sewage pumps in the city dysfunctional. The city’s municipal authorities were thus compelled to open out its storm water drains to let out the storm water. However, this adversely resulted in the drowning of a number of people into those drains. The city’s main storm water drain, Mithi River overflowed and spilled out the sewage it is dumped with and this gave rise to a host of epidemics in the following days. To add to this plight, the heavy rains caused landslides in the hilly areas in the north-west part of the city that had been quarried to accommodate future developments. It claimed the lives of almost 65 people and left more than a hundred, homeless. The floods damaged nearly 50,000 residential structures and close to 40,000 commercial establishments. It is a loss that the city would probably never be able to recover from.
And the bad news is that, this is not just a unique event that the city can conveniently forget about. “According to all the responsible predictions, flooding will get worse than before in the coming future.” This means that Mumbai can expect to have similar or even worse flooding in the coming years. This fact holds true for every country and city in the world that bears geographical resemblance to Mumbai. Inevitably, more and more existing settlements in the flood plains will be frequently inundated. This would cause more disturbances in the city’s functioning and a loss of property and life. Thus, it is extremely critical for flood prone areas to come up with a fool proof plan to deal with this wicked disaster. The plan should essentially include pre-flood prevention strategies as well as post-flood mitigation strategies, some of which haven’t been executed in such cases in the past.
However, to come up with almost perfect strategies, it is extremely essential to examine the most probable factors that led to this catastrophe, which is what this study aims to achieve in the next chapter. A review of these causes can help this research in devising solutions that meet the requirements of the issues and their causes.

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