The videos were all over the Internet and social media. Expectedly so, because you don’t often see crocodiles swimming in flooded urban streets, sneaking up on strays. But that’s precisely what happened shortly after news of ‘urban floods’ in Vadodara hit headlines in early August. The city witnessed scary flash floods following spells of intense rain, bringing back memories of what the city had witnessed in June 2005 and then again in the monsoon of 2014, the latter perhaps leading to the coinage of the phrase ‘urban floods’.
Back in 2014, ecologists had spoken up to communicate their worries to the city administration. The same concerns were repeated even this time. Speaking to a local television channel, Deepa Gavli of Gujarat Ecological Society termed the build-up in the crisis after the day-long rains on July 31st as ‘waterlogging,’ and not a flood caused by an overflowing river. She recalled how she had to walk back home in knee deep waters, wondering why the storm water drains in the city failed so miserably to drain out water from the city. Trying to draw attention to the brazen manner in which the city is losing its wetlands, Deepa pointed out that between 2005 and 2018, the city has lost 40 hectares previously marked as wetlands.
Dumping in water bodies
Neha Sarwate of Concerned Citizens of Vadodara talks about their futile efforts to communicate their concerns to the city administration over the large scale illegal dumping of construction and demolition waste around the Vishwamitri river that flows through the city. (Incidentally, it is also home to a number of crocodiles.) She termed the reply from the city administration as superficial and reflective of a laid back attitude.
Based on the protest letters by environmental activists, a Gujarati language newspaper – Divya Bhaskar – published a full page report on April 3 2019, issuing a warning that construction and demolition waste dumped by the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC) and private builders along the ravines of the Vishwamitri river could potentially cause a disastrous flood in the city.
In the first week of August, the same newspaper was compelled to publish a story in a ‘we-had-told-you-so’ tone. One can see the point, because such was the level of apathy among the state authorities that an intervention by the union ministry’s National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) also went unheeded by the chief secretary of the state, who had been asked by the directorate to act against the illegal dumping along the riverbanks.
State looks the other way
The NRCD letter to the Principal Secretary of the Gujarat Environment Department had called for an ‘action taken’ report to be filed by the government within a prescribed time limit. This letter was issued by NRCD acting on a representation made by concerned citizens who pointed out that in spite of a site visit by a committee headed by retired Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, B. C. Patel on April 24 2019, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board had failed to ensure that VMC and private builders do not dump any waste or debris in the ravines around the course of Vishwamitri river.
Alarmed that authorities didn’t bother to put the house in order even after the above intervention from NRCD, citizens once again wrote a protest letter in May 2019 to authorities seeking “urgent action to prevent the possibility of large scale waterlogging and urban floods due to deliberate negligence with regard to the reclamation of the ravines.” This letter also demanded that the officials concerned are legally liable to “compensate if any damage is done to the environment and the affected communities”.
[Read excerpts from the letter here]
What are we missing?
In the wake of the floods this year, a former Vadodara Municipal Commissioner, Vinod Rao was rushed to the city along with a team sent by the state government. A report in The Indian Express quoted him trying to naturalise the floods by stating, “any city that receives 500 mm of rain within hours would be flooded.” Mr Rao tried to blame the incessant rainfall, stating that “storm water drains in Vadodara are built to handle 1200 mm of rain annually.”
The discussions that we come across in the wake of such waterlogging and urban floods still remain trapped in the old vocabulary of comparing rainfall on a single day with the average annual rainfall. Yet as many environmental studies, and even this article in Down To Earth (on the reasons behind the massive floods in Karnataka this monsoon), suggest, high intensity rainfall events are only likely to be more and more frequent.
What is missed in these discussions is that our cities (whether we anoint them with adjectives such as ‘smart’ or not) need to improve the density of the rain gauge stations. We now need to speak in terms of hourly intensity of the rain (how many mm/hour) events and if we commit ourselves to this task, we can actually reach that point. Take, for example, what is being done by the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre. Bengaluru now has 100 raingauge stations constantly supplying information about rainfall intensity and volume. However, Mumbai, despite its yearly struggle with the rains, still has a long way to go with just 64 rain gauge stations. With better density of rain gauge stations, we can learn our lessons from the granular data that emerges.
Concerned Citizens of Vadodara is now working on an action research project, under which members are plotting the rainfall data and the rise in water levels as well as waterlogged low lying areas over the years on maps. Once the findings from this exercise are clear, we will also be in a position to understand the impact of the sacrifice of the city’s wetlands and high intensity rainfall absorbers at the altar of a thinking that only considers construction and building as ‘development’.
In the wake of the December 2015 urban floods in Chennai, CAG of India officials had initiated a stand-alone performance audit on Flood Management in Chennai. This performance audit report has emerged as a resource that other cities can learn from. Would the office of Principal Accountant General (General and Social Sector Audit), Gujarat now carry out a comprehensive performance audit of the urban floods in Vadodara?
Even as this article goes to press, several large dams in Gujarat are filled with water and their floodgates have been thrown open. When massive floods hit the headlines along with incessant rains upstream, electronic media typically inundates news bulletins with stories of post-disaster relief. In the midst of this shrill coverage, what we need is a deep understanding of why floods have become an ‘urban’ phenomenon in our times. In the absence of that, Doomsday will not be far.