After a major flood, this Indian city decided it would not allow itself to become a disaster statistic once again.
SURAT, India—Walk around Surat, the diamond capital of India, and it is impossible not to notice “HFL 8.8.2006” scrawled on many walls. The inscription stands for “high flood level,” where rising waters peaked on August 8, 2006 during a devastating flood.
Flooding is nothing new in Surat, a city of 5 million situated along the Tapi River on the west coast of India. In the past 100 years, Surat has experienced some 20 floods. But the 2006 flood was unusually destructive, killing more than 120 people, stranding tens of thousands in their homes without food or electricity and closing businesses and schools for weeks.
It was also largely preventable.
About 100 kilometers (60 miles) upstream from Surat, water from heavy rains built up behind the Ukai Dam. Rather than releasing the water gradually, the dam’s managers unleashed a deluge all at once, submerging large swathes of this industrial city underwater with little notice. The Gujarat state government preferred to call the floods a natural disaster but citizens’ committees who looked into the matter had a different story to tell. They concluded that the havoc was largely the result of mismanagement of the dam operations and that its impact could have been reduced.
Akash Acharya, an academic working in the Centre for Social Studies in Surat who co-authored “Surat 2006 Floods: A Citizens’ Report,” has vivid memories of the devastation. “We were living in the Centre for Social Studies campus when the flood waters gushed in,” Acharya recalls. “We rushed to the terrace. There was no power. One of our greatest feats was saving the books in the library. We managed to remove all of them from the lowest racks.” Talking of mismanagement at the dam, Acharya says: “There is a rule book, but rules about the release of dam water were not followed.”
Yet today, Acharya, like many others in the city, feels that Surat is more prepared now than ever to deal with flooding. Thanks to a number of recent initiatives—and new protocols at the dam—heavy rains in the past few years have not brought the usual inundations. It’s a similar story to how the city bounced back from a horrific plague in 1994 and emerged as a public-health model. With flooding, Surat decided it would not allow itself to become a disaster statistic once again.
How that happened is a story of partnerships and will power. Many groups came together—local business associations, notably the Southern Gujarat Chamber of Commerce; TARU Leading Edge, a well-known Indian consulting firm; the Surat Municipal Corporation and other government bodies; and the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation. (Disclosure: The Rockefeller Foundation is a funder of Citiscope.) The partnerships led to the formation of the Surat Climate Change Trust, which played an important role in setting up a comprehensive early-warning system for flooding in the city.
These systems are part of Surat’s broader resilience strategy. Last month, the secretary of the Climate Change Trust, Kamlesh Yagnik, was also appointed Surat’s Chief Resilience Officer. This is a post created to help Surat prepare for, survive, and recover from all kinds of environmental, economic, and social shocks—not only the usual floods and storms but also traffic congestion, air pollution, water scarcity and social cohesion. (The latter is being tested in Surat right now as protests against quotas in government hiring and university admissions has turned into rioting.)
But flooding remains Surat’s most persistent long-term vulnerability, especially as climate change affects the water cycle. Recent years have seen fewer rainy days in the year, but more intense rainfall on those days, increasing the flood risk. On top of that, rising sea levels are expected to cause higher tides that could cause the Tapi to flood more frequently.
In the wake of the 2006 flood, the first task was improving coordination around management of the dam. Yagnik says the challenge is all the competing interests the dam serves. Flood control is only one of the dam’s primary tasks. Others include providing irrigation water for agriculture and drinking water for people, as well as generating electricity.
The monsoon season is another complication. Most rain falls between the end of June and September, so some water hoarding is necessary to keep the reservoir full in the dry months. But when the reservoir level gets too high, gradual and planned releases are necessary to avoid inundating areas downstream. “The big question was always about how much water to release and how much to store,” says Yagnik.
The Surat Climate Change Trust became the venue for the various stakeholders to answer that and other questions, both for long-term planning ahead of the rainy season and for emergency planning during a crisis. Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin notes the importance of this structure for Surat in her recent book, “The Resilience Dividend.”
“Today, in contrast to 2006, the water management process involves decision makers at all levels,” Rodin writes. “The involvement of private industry players is particularly important. If the lead-up to the 2006 scenario were to happen today, those business leaders could, in a worst-case scenario, ask for intervention from the highest level of political and administrative authorities—and would not be ignored.”
Importantly, these talks are informed by data. TARU Leading Edge worked with data providers such as the India Meteorological Department for weather forecasting, the Central Water Commision for flood forecasting, and the Maharashtra Irrigation Department, which provides figures on water inflow to the Ukai reservoir. All members of the Surat Climate Change Trust receive a daily forecast. It’s now possible to forecast the extent of flooding between eight hours and four days before the event, giving the various parties time to plan.
“Now that SCCT has learned to handle the forecasts, our role is only ensuring that there is buy-in and the forecasts are released daily,” says G.K. Bhat, Chairman of TARU Leading Edge. “Over the last three years, the process has been fairly streamlined.”
Indeed, heavy rains in 2013 gave the system a big test. It passed: There was water in Surat’s streets, but not anywhere near as devastating as in 2006. “In 2013,” Yagnik says, “we knew around when it was likely to rain heavily, how much water would be in the dam, the rise of the water level and how much water should be released.”
The other end of Surat’s new early-warning system is geared toward informing the public. In the past, vans fitted with loudspeakers belted out warnings if flooding was imminent, asking residents to move to safer places. That left most residents with only a few hours to move to higher ground with their valuables.
Now, whenever the Ukai reservoir is close to capacity, a warning is sent to all citizens via SMS, 48 hours before any water is released. The Municipal Corporation has a smartphone app through which anyone can track the inflow and outflow of water at the Ukai reservoir. The Municipal Corporation also has strengthened its monsoon preparedness plan and sends out regular SMS alerts.
There are also citizen-led initiatives like the Surat Flood Information page on Facebook. Started by a bunch of people in their 20s, it seeks to provide updates about water level in the Ukai reservoir, the inflow and outflow, and also to dispel rumors during crisis situations.
There is a lot of physical monitoring during the monsoon months when it rains heavily. Municipal Corporation engineers equipped with mobile phones fan out to vulnerable areas. Residents now know well in advance how much water may gush into their neighborhood if a major dam release occurs. If flooding happens, the Municipal Corporation now keeps a roster of people in each neighborhood who know how to swim and can be roped in for rescue work.
Surat also has begun taking steps to move people and property out of harm’s way.
For example, many homeowners and businesses, including those in the diamond trade, have elevated their structures. Some new buildings constructed after 2006 use the ground floor only for parking.
A key initiative involved mapping land and communities vulnerable to flooding. The Municipal Corporation has stopped giving permission to builders to construct on the floodplain—a significant step in a country where municipalities often let builders do whatever they want. The Municipal Corporation also has set up a system of evacuation shelters in every zone of the city, another precaution that many Indian cities neglect until the need arises. As Jatin Shah, city engineer for the Surat Municipal Corporation, boasts: “There is a proper disaster management plan.”
The corporation also removed some 5,000 hutments from areas along the riverbank; the residents were relocated to areas on the outskirts of the city. One relocated resident I spoke with, 29-year old Suman Ben, says her family members lost all their savings and possessions in the 2006 flood. She earned more money when she lived by the river—she sells vegetables, and there were more people to sell to closer to the city center. But she says her new home is more secure and people are more alert to flood risks. Many slum dwellers now store their valuable documents in a plastic pouch that they can easily grab and carry with them to a shelter during a flood event.
Surat has shown the way in many respects, but challenges loom. Social cohesion is important for a city rebound after a crisis—and the Surat model shows the importance of many factions of society, business and government coming together in solidarity. But the recent violence that has rocked Surat and other cities in Gujarat suggest there are cracks in the unity.
Members of the influential Patel community are demanding special reservations in government jobs and in schools and colleges. They have clashed with the police and other residents. Buses have been burned, shops looted, people killed and injured. Surat has proved that it can bounce back from terrible crises. One hopes that this time too, it will prove resilient.
This post originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.