Our cities need to adapt to prevent urban flooding – ActionAid India
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Our cities need to adapt to prevent urban flooding

Author: Sandeep Chachra | Tikender Singh Panwar
Posted on: Monday, 4th September 2023
The floods in Gurugram and Bengaluru are examples of planning failures. The severe disruption of natural drainage systems and construction over water channels add to the woes.
Urban flood disasters have increased incrementally over the last three decades. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, the most notable cities flooded in this period are Hyderabad in 2000, Ahmedabad in 2001, Delhi in 2002 and 2003, Chennai in 2004, Mumbai in 2005, Surat in 2006, Kolkata in 2007, Jamshedpur in 2008, Delhi in 2009, Guwahati and Delhi in 2010, and again in 2023, Srinagar in 2014 and Chennai in 2015. A town like Barmer, known as a desert town in the Thar desert, was not spared and has seen floods in this period.
Even in the mountain towns, which hardly witnessed flooding as the water ran down the slopes, we have seen towns like Dharamshala and Shimla catch one of the worst forms of flooding, triggering massive landslides.
According to a reply made in the Indian Parliament, over 17,000 people died in floods and heavy rains between 2012 and 2021 in the country.
Considering the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), specifically Reports VI and the findings of Working Groups 1, 2 and 3, these disasters should not surprise. What does the report indicate? This comprehensive global effort by climate scientists, the IPCC Report, issues a caution for the Indian subcontinent, indicating that two specific zones-the coastal areas and the Himalayas-are poised to experience a rise in extreme climate events with a shift in rainfall patterns. Anticipated trends include a heightened intensity of rainfall occurring within shorter timeframes. Simply put more rain in a shorter period of time. And if the urban infrastructure is not climate resilient, flooding and landslides are imminent.
According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), “the urban heat island effect has resulted in an increase in rainfall over urban areas. Global climate change results in changed weather patterns and increased episodes of high-intensity rainfall events occurring in shorter periods. Then, sea-level rise is also looming large, threatening all the coastal cities. Cities/towns located on the coast, on river banks, upstream/ downstream of dams, inland cities and in hilly areas can all be affected.”
This phenomenon is already being witnessed with increased rapidity in the last few decades. Urbanization is transforming the landscape of India at an unprecedented pact. Structural changes were brought in the liberalization period that started in the mid 90s, when cities were asked to attract investments and, in this direction, they were termed as ‘engines of growth’. Development in the urban India got linked to the global ideology of reforming land laws, making land easily available for the ‘real estate’ to construct housing projects and in effect promoting the idea of competition among cities. The process was further enhanced with the project oriented approach embedded in Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), and in the recent Smart City Mission (SCM). The commonality being area-based project-oriented development of hard infrastructure.
This blind race was one of the major reasons in usurping the urban commons, water bodies, ruining the water channels, disturbing the water contours, converting open spaces that acted as water sponges in to housing projects, and much more.
One result was the expansion of cities at an unprecedented pace. In the period 1991-2001, 221 towns and cities had merged, whereas this figure was 100 in the preceding decade of 1981-1991. The confluence of rapid development, poor planning, and the impact of climate change has led to a continuous feature- urban flooding.
Recurrent instances of inundated streets, disrupted lives, and economic losses have highlighted the urgent need to address this issue comprehensively.

Causes of Urban Flooding

Every city has its peculiarities and is adapted or un-adapted to flood risks in a manner of its historic evolution. However, there are some common arenas which need a universal approach for minimizing the loss of urban floods and eventually leading to disasters.

Drainage System

One of the primary reasons for urban flooding in Indian cities is the inadequate drainage infrastructure. Many urban areas lack well- designed stormwater drainage systems capable of handling heavy rainfall events. As cities expand without proper planning, impervious surfaces like roads and buildings prevent water from seeping into the ground, overwhelming the insufficient drainage systems. The design of the drains is also important feature. Concretizing the drains and not allowing the water to percolate in the ground further compounds the flooding problem

Rapid Urbanization – Both Planned and Unplanned

Rapid urbanization both planned and unplanned is also responsible for flooding. Take for example the construction of flyovers, widening of roads, urban settlements-or what is called ‘grey’ infrastructure in a planned manner, duly approved by the competent authorities but in water logged areas, all of them are responsible for urban flooding.
Floods in Gurgaon, Bangalore are examples of such planning failures. Another failure is the construction of highways traversing water bodies which feed rivers and streams, such construction is also a major reason for urban flooding. Take for example the ‘Kisan Path’ in Lucknow – a road covering the circumference of the entire district. It has affected the Kukrail River in Lucknow and has blocked the drainage near the origin of the river.
The Gurugram perioding floods during rains is mainly because of severe disruption of the natural drainage system caused by the construction of roads and permanent concrete structures on wetlands.
Another major reason is improper waste disposal practices. Clogged drains and waterways filled with solid waste prevent water from flowing freely, exacerbating flood risks. Lack of proper waste management systems in many cities worsens this problem.

Loss of Urban Commons

Many cities have witnessed encroachment and illegal construction on water bodies like lakes, ponds and rivers and in urban green patches or mini forests, which are often referred to as ‘blue infrastructure’. This results in reduced water storage capacity and disrupts the natural flow of water leading to increased flooding during heavy rains. Likewise, massive land use change from open spaces, parks, playgrounds to more concrete surfaces in the form of built in areas and real estate reduces the water to percolate in the ground and instead triggers flooding.

The path to solutions

To ensure that we make our cities resilient, liveable, and safer, we need a multifaceted approach for effective mitigation. This hinges on planning which centrally includes ‘Cityzens’ and outlines short term and medium term collective action plans. From our experience on working with urban floods the following are the fundamentals.

Creating a Climate Atlas

Before a development plan, every town and city must prepare its climate plan of action and thus a climate atlas. The climate atlas must be done with active participation of the people. The vulnerable points must be identified, also water contouring must be done and a complete ‘no’ should be the reverberating voice for damaging the water bodies or water channels. Likewise, capacity building of the people must be built to adapt to flooding and other climate disasters.

Sustainable Urban Planning

Cities need to embrace sustainable urban planning practices that consider natural topography and hydrology of the region. This includes preserving natural water bodies and floodplains, as well as integrating green spaces that can absorb excess water. Flood resilient infrastructure must be built that includes very minimum engagement with the water contours. Improved drainage systems can help in minimizing and combating flooding in urban spaces. Improved water management methods by enhancing waste collection and segregation must be practiced. A protocol of clearing the drains during summer months must be followed. Simultaneously green cover must be increased and massive drive for reforestation must be unleashed.
Early warning systems play an important role in minimizing the loss to human lives. Timely alerts can help in responding swiftly and can save lives and assets. People must be at the centre of preparing disaster mitigation and adaptation strategies.
To minimize the loss of urban flooding what is required is a multi- faceted approach for effective mitigation. Climate resilient strategies strongly rooted in a pro-people approach and a complete ‘no’ to occupying water bodies must be the priority to meet the challenge of urban flooding.
Disclaimer: The article was originally published on Deccan Herald. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of ActionAid Association.