10 yrs of 26/7 deluge: Is Mumbai better prepared? Answer is ‘No’

  • Sanjana Bhalerao, Hindustan Times, Mumbai

Experts blame BMC, govt for haphazard construction, lack of impact assessment studies and refusal to learn lessons from past

MUMBAI: A decade ago, on July 26, 2005, Mumbai drowned in 944mm of rain and was left with indelible scars. Chennai has been facing a similar deluge for the past 10 days, leading Mumbaiites to inevitably ask: is our city, with a population of over 1.2 crore, prepared if such rain strikes again?

If one goes by preparations in the run-up to the monsoon this year, the answer is an emphatic ‘no’. Far less rain in one day than the city saw on July 26, 2005 – just one-third, in fact – was enough to sink Mumbai on June 19, 2015.

Civic officials have over the years blamed ‘unprecedented’ torrential rain and the limited capacity of drainage systems for floods. Experts whom HT spoke to agreed that the limited capacity of storm-water drains was partly responsible for floods, but said haphazard construction and the refusal to learn lessons from the past were more to blame.

“BMC over the years has taken 141 hectares of flood plains to create a dumping ground. Wetlands are vital to the city. In simple terms they absorb rain water and release it into the sea. This can’t be achieved by replacing them with pumping stations. One normal monsoon and the city will be inundated,” said Stalin D, an environmentalist.

To make things worse, the civic body and various government agencies have failed to protect the city’s open spaces and vacant lands. The no-development zones that help contain flood water are now under threat from various provisions in the city’s proposed development plan.

Experts HT spoke to said that if what is happening in Chennai happens in Mumbai, it will hardly be a shock as the government and BMC have not learned from their mistakes or implemented the suggestions of any committee.

They also said that the natural drainage of water is being adversely affected by reckless construction and infrastructure projects, which are cleared without a comprehensive study on their potential impact.

For example, in July, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a draft notification on amending provisions of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) to fast-track the Maharashtra government’s ambitious coastal road project. This decision drew anger from environmentalists.

“We have no way to l et water percolate naturally into the ground. We are disturbing the natural drainage system with haphazard construction,” said Ris hi Ag gr aw al, an environmentalist and Observer Research Foundation fellow.

File photo of the deluge in Mumbai on 26th of July, 2005. It has been ten years since Mumbai was submerged following a cloudburst. (HT photo: Vijayanand Gupta)

On July 26th, 2005, 10 years ago, Mumbai drowned in 944mm of rain. The deluge, referred to ever since simply as ‘26/7’ in the manner of a terrorist attack, killed over 500 people and left the city with indelible scars.

Is Mumbai better prepared if such a disaster strikes again? The answer, based on this year’s rains, is an emphatic ‘no’. Not only is Mumbai unprepared for another 26/7-scale deluge, it actually seems to have gone backwards. Far less rain is needed to flood roads and train tracks and bring the city to a standstill.

On June 19, Mumbai received 280mm of rain, less than a third of what it got on 26/7. This, however, was enough to cripple the city. Local trains stopped, leaving lakhs of people stranded, and some roads remained water-logged well into the next day.

After 26/7, the BMC and the state government had come in for strong criticism and responded with a flood of promises. The BMC set up a fact-finding committee headed by Madhav Chitale to examine the causes of the disaster and recommend solutions. In the past 10 years, the civic body has failed to fulfill even half of its recommendations.

File photo: People rescue an old man from a submerged train near Chunabhatti Station, in Mumbai. On July 26th, 2005, 10 years ago, Mumbai drowned in 944mm of rain. The deluge killed over 500 people. (Vijayanand Gupta/HT photo)
A major promise was to revive the long-delayed Brihanmumbai Stormwater Drains project (Brimstowad), conceived in 1993 to widen and deepen nullahs that connect to the sea and creek, and to construct pumping stations. The project comprised 58 crucial infrastructure projects across the city, including the construction of eight pumping stations, widening of most major nullahs, and an overhaul of the city’s drainage system. Ten years on, only 26 of these projects – fewer than half – have been completed. The 2011 deadline has been pushed to 2016, while the cost has shot up from Rs1,200 crore to Rs4,000 crore.

A major reason why the city remains flood-prone is that small drains, which comprise 93% of the drainage network and carry flood water from various localities to major drains (which comprise just 7% of the network), continue to be neglected.

Brimstowad isn’t the only major project that has been neglected. The Mithi river, which wreaked havoc on 26/7, was to be widened to prevent it from overflowing as it did that day. This project is also incomplete, and Mumbai remains at the Mithi’s mercy.

Many Mumbaiites, including a former municipal commissioner, blame the BMC’s ineptitude for the mess. “The sluggish pace of work has created more problems. The city’s natural drains have also disappeared owing to haphazard construction. This has increased the burden on existing drains,” said former civic chief DM Sukhankar.

File photo: A train is submerged near Chunabhatti station as incessant rains lashed Mumbai on the 26th of July, 2005. Passengers were stranded in the trains and on the railway platforms. (Vijayanand Gupta/HT Photo)

‘Worse than before’

“The money spent on the Brimstowad project is going down the drain. Encroachment around nullahs remains a big concern. Many slums have mushroomed near nullahs and garbage from them has worsened the problem. The BMC has budget of crores but a lack of willpower to implement the projects is damaging the city.” Gaurang Vora, activist from Sion

“Even 10 days since the deluge we are unprepared for 100mm of rain in an hour. The slow pace of the Brimstowad project means it will take another five to 10 years to complete. Improving the city’s drains is something that should have been done 20 to 30 years ago.” Nikhil Desai, citizen activist

“There is little evidence that the city is better prepared. The rainfall on June 19 sowed that there are now more areas prone to water-logging. Also, people continue to throw garbage in drains, which adds to the problem. We need a waste management system to prevent people from clogging drains with rubbish.” Rishi Aggarwal, environmentalist

Flooding depends on the high tide. During a high tide, the drainage system pumps out less water, and if this coincides with heavy rain, flooding occurs as our existing system is not very effective.” DK Pathak, former civic official

File photo: A man wades through a submerged railway track near Chunabhatti station, in Mumbai. (Vijayanand Gupta/HT Photo)

File photo: People wade through waist-deep water as traffic came to a standstill after incessant rains in Mumbai on July 26th, 2005. (Vijayanand Gupta/HT Photo)

File photo: This is Wadala railway station on the 26th of July, 2005. Passengers were stranded in the trains and on the railway platforms. (Photo: Sanjiv Valsan)