Pedestrians with rain coats and umbrellas stand on a staircase above a flooded street
Pedestrians wait to cross a flooded street in Mumbai during heavy rains in June 2015. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

New construction, shoddy drainage, and sluggish action from officials conspire to create deadly conditions during monsoon season.

By the time the downpour started on August 29, many Mumbaikars had already left their homes for work or school. A savvy few among them may have checked their social media updates or news reports in the morning, but nothing rang alarm bells. Some local celebrities were tweeting about the possibility of high rainfall that morning, but the Regional Meteorological Centre in Mumbai chose not to send out any formal warnings. Rain fell heavily—up to 12 inches within nine hours in some areas. It coincided with high tide flowing into the city, causing abject misery for residents and bringing India’s financial capital to its knees.

As a result of the severe flooding, thousands were stranded on the streets or at schools and workplaces. Rising water levels led to vehicles getting stuck or submerged. Local train services were cancelled. Seven bodies were recovered just that day; over the next three days, the death toll rose to 20. A prominent doctor fell into an open manhole, and two 2-year-olds died in landslides near their homes.

The basic conditions are far from unusual: Flooding is almost an annual ritual in this city of over 20 million residents. At least once between June and August—monsoon season—life comes to a standstill. For many residents, these recent events repeated a nightmare that unfolded in the last week of July 2005, when the city drowned under an unprecedented and unexpected 39 inches of rainfall, leading to the death of over 540 people within the city.

With each instance, there is public outrage and anger against civic authorities and the local government, who are caught napping when the flooding begins. Preparations are never carried out on time—and this also means that recovery work is hindered once the flooding begins. A geographic survey conducted in June by the Hindustan Times and a panel of experts threw the spotlight on the city’s utter unpreparedness for any level of flooding, with the panel giving it a worrying 3.8 on a scale of 10. The panel found the city lagging in many basic preventive measures, including laying of roads dug up for civic work, removal of garbage floating on the city’s drains (known locally as nullahs), and desilting of choked drains across the city. But as soon as the water recedes, the wrath is forgotten, Mumbai’s resilient spirit is lauded, and life moves on. Until the next year, or the next deluge.

Urban planning experts say that Mumbai’s helplessness in the face of heavy downpour is a combination of several factors, beginning with the absence of a sophisticated weather forecasting system. “There seems to be no method of day-to-day projections and predictions, and even if there are, there is no systematic communication of these to the public,” says Prasad Shetty, associate professor at the School of Environment and Architecture.

Another cause of chronic flooding is the city’s inefficient water drainage system. Combined with unrestricted construction activity in Mumbai’s low-lying central neighborhoods, there is no place for the water to recede, especially with the high tide washing into the city from the sea.

Rahul Srivastava, founder of the Institute of Urbanology, also points to the city’s history of building on land reclaimed from the water, a practice dating back to the British times. Since Mumbai is essentially a narrow peninsula helmed in by the sea, the only way to increase liveable land area was to take it back from the sea. Marshy lands were filled with rubble and entire neighborhoods were built on top; the last such major reclamation project was in the prosperous south Mumbai area of Nariman Point as recently as the 1960s and ‘70s. Indiscriminate building activity over such land has ensured that Mumbai remains vulnerable to the threat of flooding even now. The metropolis we know as Mumbai was originally made up of seven discrete islands, and the weakest areas are the “joints” such as Worli. “Much of this city has been defined against sea water, against its natural geology, so flooding is a threat endemic to Mumbai,” Srivastava says.

The city needs good civic planning, Srivastava adds, and for modern technology to work alongside existing ecology. And that is where successive governments—irrespective of political affiliation—have let Mumbai down. According to Srivastava, drainage and storm-water outlets and a clear sewage system are not just crisis-management tools, but elements of basic good civic infrastructure. And Mumbai is severely lacking in all of these.

With irregular and insufficient garbage collection systems and debris from metro construction activity piling up, water outlets have been choking up further in the last few months. Madhav Pai, director of the WRI India Ross Center, also talks about the alarming increase in construction in the upmarket, central neighborhoods of Dadar, Parel, and Worli—among the worst affected in last week’s rain.

“Even between 2005 and now, the built-up area in these neighborhoods has increased without any regard to open spaces and flow of water. There is just too much concrete, so where will the water go?” he says. Srivastava echoes this concern over rapid construction. “This whole craze for ‘sea facing’ apartments has led to a serious increase in the number of high-rise buildings and rampant concretization close to the sea,” he says. “And it puts entire localities in a very vulnerable position.”

Poor drainage and haphazard enforcement of safety mandates leads to chronic flooding. (Shailesh Andrade/Reuters)

Pai adds that while the government mandates safety measures such as using permeable materials and leaving space for water to drain, those strategies are seldom implemented by builders. And then there is the destruction of natural features known to act as sponges, like mangroves and wetlands, once plentiful in Mumbai.

Mumbai once had a possible roadmap for combating the city’s tendency to flood—but it stalled out over time. Following a heavy downpour in 1985, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation appointed British engineering consultants Watson Hawksley to chalk out a detailed plan for this project.

Called Brihanmumbai Storm Water Disposal System (BRIMSTOWAD), this would have overhauled the city’s drainage system by installing new pumping stations and repairing old pipelines, allowing the city to withstand up to two inches of rainfall in an hour. The environmental journalist Darryl D’Monte notes in that this plan was hailed as a milestone drainage blueprint for Mumbai. However, it has languished: Less than 50 percent of the work has been completed so far, with no record of where the remaining money has gone.

Meanwhile, desilting the water drains (removing the clogged layers of sand and grainy soil) all over the city has been slow going, and the clean-up operation of the Mithi, one of the four rivers inside the city limits and the prime culprit in the 2005 floods, has been equally inadequate. During the 2005 deluge, Mithi river played a large part in throwing back the water flowing into its limits, since it was already choking with garbage and pollutants dumped by the city. Twelve years on, despite plans to allow Mithi to be an outlet for receding rainwater, not much has changed.

The city’s premier civic body, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), is tasked with organizing the cleanup efforts, but Shetty says the river has only become more polluted with heavy metals and garbage in the last few years, leaving it vulnerable to choking and flooding.

“There is a basic lack of political and bureaucratic will to implement a long-term development plan for the city, so we are always operating in crisis mode,” Shetty adds.

The scenario of heavy rainfall and flooding will only become increasingly likely in the future. Experts stress the need for preparation—solar roof tops for electricity, food and drinking water supply, first aid—among those managing public spaces like municipal corporation offices, community schools, and religious institutions, where people seek shelter and assistance.

But Pai points out that many of those responses—from both the authorities and from citizens—only emerge as a reaction to disaster, when they should be working ahead of it. “The current conversation in resilience literature everywhere is how to turn this spirit into a state of preparedness.” And Mumbai needs to learn that lesson. And learn it fast.

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