After Maximum Damage of 2005 Deluge, Maximum City Unchanged

Academics agree that even New York would not have been able to withstand a deluge of Mumbai’s magnitude. 

5 min read

Most of Mumbai was caught unawares by the tenth anniversary on July 26 of the city’s mega flood, when it received 944 mm (37 inches) of rain, three-quarters between 2:30 and 7:30 pm.

It brought the city to its knees, claiming the lives of 273 people in the city proper and another 500 in adjoining areas, leaving a trail of destruction in its deadly wake.

One of the most puzzling features of the torrential downpour was that it spared the island city in the south, which comprises 100 sq km of Greater Mumbai’s 480 sq km.


Maximum City, Mega Floods

On July 26, the Maximum City received 944 mm (37 inches) of rain

Heavy downpour claimed 273 lives in Mumbai and another 500 in adjoining areas

Surprisingly, the torrential downpour spared the island city in the south, which comprises 100 sq km of Greater Mumbai’s 480 sq km

Meteorologists believe that forests attract rain, while densely built high-rises tend to repel it

A photograph of the suburban rail bridge at Mahim at the mouth of the Mithi river showed the water running just inches below the tracks. Had it risen, it would have physically severed north from south Mumbai.

As it was, all roads in the suburbs were flooded —even those on the sea face— since it coincided with high tides, not permitting the water to escape. Thus, even if Mantralaya intended to ferry boats and relief to the marooned buildings and slum colonies, it couldn’t do so.


Manmade Climate Change

Academics agree that even New York would not have been able to withstand a deluge of Mumbai’s magnitude. 
People walk home as traffic came to a standstill in Mumbai following heavy rains on July 27, 2005 . (Photo: Reuters)

One reason for the anomaly could be the presence of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), straddling 110 sq km, in the northern suburbs. Meteorologists believe that forests attract rain, while densely built high-rises tend to repel it.

However, recent research by IIT-Bombay shows that excessive density of construction can also raise temperatures and trigger thunderstorms.

Other researchers from the same IIT have recently demonstrated how Mumbai is worse off than Delhi and other cities in one respect: there are ‘heat islands’ which can cause inland areas to register 33⁰C in summer, while simultaneously a coastal stretch may only register 23⁰C.

Some academics from the New School in New York happened to be in Mumbai for an unrelated conference on urban issues on 26/7. After the floods abated, they mentioned how the chances of such an unprecedented downpour happening were increasing due to manmade climate change.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy in The Big Apple in 2012, a New York Times blogger wrote:

Those outside the area may wonder how their own cities would fare in such a disaster. What if a storm on the scale of Sandy took place in another teeming metropolis surrounded by water – like, say, Mumbai? First, some basic stats: Mumbai has 13 million residents to New York’s 8.2 million and is twice as densely populated, at 53,600 people per square mile, compared to New York’s 27,243 per square mile.
—Blogger, New York Times

However, the New School experts admitted that even New York wouldn’t have been able to withstand a deluge of Mumbai’s magnitude.

This writer served on a Concerned Citizens’ Commission on the floods, which produced a report titled Mumbai Marooned.

No Lessons Learnt

Academics agree that even New York would not have been able to withstand a deluge of Mumbai’s magnitude. 
A man walks past stranded vehicles at a waterlogged street in Bombay on July 26, 2005. (Photo: Reuters)

On the fateful day, the Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde was huddled with officials in Mantralaya to investigate heavy rain further down the Konkan coast, blissfully unaware of the catastrophe in the northern suburbs.

The National Disaster Management Authority now lists a committee in Maharashtra headed by the Chief Minister, who also has his “war room”.

However, on at least two occasions in June and July this year, the official response has been found abjectly wanting.

The forecasting system ought to be drastically improved. On 26/7 the metmen predicted “heavy to very heavy rain”. It is understandable that they were caught off-guard. However, the very next day, they repeated the same prediction, parrot-like.

The storm water drains are a century old. An official committee led by Dr Madhav Chitale, an internationally acclaimed water expert, had recommended a slew of protective measures, but less than half have been implemented.

A 2011 deadline has been stretched to 2016 and the cost has shot up from Rs 1,200 crore to Rs 4,000 crore.

Tragically, the lessons of 26/7 haven’t been learned. The Mithi river – which before the flood was treated as a nullah – takes the overflow from two lakes in the SGNP and Powai – and empties into the Mahim Bay.


‘Ecological Illiteracy’

In an open letter to the municipal corporation to meet July 27 deadline for objections to the proposed coast road, two academics, Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh from the Kamala Raheja College, begin:

On 26th July 2005, … people perished due to flooding in Mumbai, the result of high intensity rain…Mumbai’s old drainage system has been designed to handle 25mm/hour of rain intensity, whereas the new system is being designed to handle 50mm/hour. This year, with an intensity of a normal 38mm/hour, there was flooding -- rain intensity anywhere close to 2005 will result in an unprecedented disaster. The new drainage system, however, lies incomplete, under construction for the past 20 years. It will cost the city Rs 1,200 crores, one tenth of what it plans to spend on the coastal road. And the coastal road will greatly increase the risk of flooding.
—Hussain Indorewala and Shweta Wagh, Academics

26/7 exposed what greens term the “ecological illiteracy” of the authorities in not factoring in natural features like the rivers running through Mumbai, its mangroves, wetlands and the like in their plans.

The coast road will run as a landfilled stretch bang in the middle of the Malad creek, which only presages a calamity which can easily be foretold.

Mumbai is sitting on some most expensive real estate in the world and certainly in this country. Even a decade ago, an apartment in Nariman Point, at the southernmost tip, exchanged hands for Re 1 lac a sq ft.

With the coast road running from Nariman Point to Kandivali in the northernmost suburbs, will Mumbai be able to withstand the next torrential downpour if the access to the sea is blocked by an eight-lane highway?

(The writer is a Mumbai-based senior journalist)

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