The many warnings that Pune ignored before it went under water this September

Intense September rainfall over a couple of days devastated large parts of Pune, causing loss to life and property and exposing the unpreparedness of the city authorities. Yet, the writing on the wall had been clear for some time and called out by both environmentalists and lay citizens.

Close to 20 people killed in the city itself, several missing and over 3000 requiring rehabilitation — Pune is grappling with the situation in the aftermath of the September flash floods, as the city and its adjoining areas saw over 100 millimetres of rain over a period of two days. While efforts are on to redeem the situation, environmentalists and analysts say that the writing had been on the wall for some time. And the authorities had even been warned about it…

Flashback to August 2019

In the first week of August, Pune experienced floods after around 100000 cusecs of water was released from three upstream dams in the district. Over the next two days, on the 5th and 6th of August, schools and offices were compelled to declare holidays as the rising waters started to submerge the bridges. On the morning of August 5th, a photograph showing the Sewage Treatment Plant near Baner submerged by flood waters started doing the rounds on social media.

Three days later, as the waters started to recede and elected ward committee members began reaching out to the community, giving them hope that the Pune Municipal Corporation was committed to doing everything possible to help citizens rebuild their lives, Marathi newspaper Lokmat blamed the encroachments in the floodplains of the rivers Mula and Mutha.

Reporting for The Federal, Shatakshi Gawade stressed upon the cumulative impact of simultaneous releases from three dams built over rivers flowing through Pune city. She notes that Pune’s flood lines have been marked at 60,000 cusecs for Mutha river, but water had entered slums and housing societies even below the 40,000 cusecs level, a result of encroachments on the river banks. 

A 10-minute documentary film, Havalela Rasta by INTACH Pune chapter shows the situation that was created during the flood of 1997, when 90,000 cusecs of water was released from Khadakwasla Dam, and once again in the flood of 2011, when 67,000 cusecs of water was released. (Water releases indicated in units of cusecs or cumecs denote the flow of water and not the volume (quantum). It shows how much water was flowing per second. )

On August 11th, at a public meeting of concerned citizens at Patrakar Bhavan, Pune, convened  to discuss floods, the following declaration was issued:

  1. Return river-land to rivers
  2. Remove all illegal encroachments on rivers, nullahs and catchment of these rivers on war footing.
  3. Mark Blue and Red lines of rivers as per their original marking.
  4. There should not be any type or form of encroachments in rivers, nullahs and catchment.
  5. Need to protect river catchment area in its natural form and restore in its natural form if any destroyed earlier.
  6. Identify and confirm the responsibility of respective authorities. Hold them responsible for any disturbance and destruction to natural water sources, paths and bodies (rivers, nullahs, hills and catchment area) that they are meant to protect.

However, this was not the first time that citizens were voicing their concerns over the treatment and management of water bodies in the region. On March 2nd, concerned citizens of Pune had formed Green Pune Save Pune Movement. They too had opposed 

  • Channelization of the river by building concrete walls and encroachment by way of ‘Reclamation’, on adjoining lands under the name of ‘Riverfront Development’;  
  • Illegal shifting of Blue and Red Flood lines, towards the centre of the river; and
  • 30-metre wide and 7-kilometre long road inside the blue lines of Mula- Mutha River, stressing that this was Prohibitive Zone.

Environmental activist Sarang Yadwadkar accused Pune Municipal Corporation and the Irrigation Department for altering floodlines across the Mutha river bank in violation of due norms. Yadwadkar had filed an EIL (Environment Interest Litigation) to save Mula-Mutha from encroachments in 2013 and along with other prominent citizens, had challenged the 1.7 km stretch of Pune Metro rail passing through Mula-Mutha riverbank ecosystem two years ago.

Overall, Pune has seen shocking similarities with the circumstances that led to flooding in Vadodara this year, when the city administration failed to act against the dumping of construction and demolition waste around the river stretch. 

Just a month before the August floods in Pune, Yadwadkar had filed a complaint with the National Green Tribunal. The NGT, in its order dated July 23rd, had directed the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB) to constitute a five-member committee to inspect areas mentioned by the activists and to take appropriate measures. In his petition, Yadwadkar mentioned 12 locations that witnessed rampant riverside dumping.

In a week’s time, after Yadwadkar addressed a press conference and warned Pune citizens to brace for the worst floods of the year, much like the flash floods in Sangli-Kolhapur, the MPCB committee undertook a site visit. This was reported by Maharashtra Times on August 22nd. While MPCB had not shown seriousness regarding the site visit, it was thanks to the Municipal Commissioner’s push that the visit actually happened a month after the NGT order.  

September rains confirm fears

Proving Yadwadkar’s premonition true, late on the evening of September 25th (Wednesday), news trickled in about several low lying areas in Pune getting waterlogged as high intensity rains lashed the city, and exposed the unpreparedness of its institutions. The high intensity rainfall had occurred on the southern side of the city, making Katraj lake overflow, which in turn made the heavily encroached rivulet Ambil Odha (Odha is the word for nalah in Marathi) also breach its banks. 

One more rivulet that drains water from the bottom of other hills also brought a lot of flood water, submerging nearby residential places. In three hours between 8 to 11 pm, more than 112 mm rainfall was recorded, leaving the city struggling in the face of flash floods.

Speaking to Citizen Matters, Yadwadkar said, “Every dynamic waterbody has its own temperament. While a human being’s temperament is shaped by samskaar, a waterbody’s temperament is shaped by its catchment. Ambil Odha drains the overflow from Katraj basin and the hills on southern sides and hence has a tendency to make floodwaters rise at faster rates. In the event of high intensity rainfall, the waters rise and create a deluge-like situation very fast.”

As waters receded, several scary scenes such as this were witnessed across the city. Pic: Ekta Sawant

He reiterated the point that citizens need to be concerned about the catchment of rivulets like Ambil Odha. In fact, he laments that the people have forgotten that Ambil Odha is a stream in its own right, and they must give it the space that it requires to drain out high intensity floods into Mutha River. Referring to old records, Yadwadkar stated that Ambil Odha had a discharge capacity of 671.78 cumecs (cubic metre per second), which translates into 23724 cusecs (cubic feet per second).

Regarding the petition at NGT, Yadwadkar stated that on September 26th, the NGT has passed an order directing municipal authorities to divert all domestic and industrial pollution to STPs. NGT has asked the authorities to file an Action Taken Report within a month.

Lessons that stare us in the face

Underlining the importance of getting more granular data on rainfall, water expert S Vishwanath stated, “We are seeing an increase in heat island effects and high intensity rainfall over shorter time spans in our cities. However, our storm water drain management system is still locked in the past and very few cities have seen a robust performance audit of storm water drain management. Our planners need to prepare for higher runoff rates and we need to think of catchments with a view to directing some flows into Rainwater Harvesting Systems.”

Niranjan Upasani of Jeevit Nadi (Living River Foundation) stated that “Scientific institutions that could have worked to ease the plight of people are located within three kms from the locations worst hit by deluge. While there will be some learning that the recent events will compel authorities and citizens into, we need to make sure that actions follow”.  

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