Preparing cities for high water

Updated - November 17, 2021 04:59 am IST

Published - June 10, 2016 01:20 am IST

If governments paid serious attention to the economic geography of India’s cities, they would be doing a lot more to prepare for annual weather events like the monsoon. UN Habitat estimates that by 2030 India will have 14 major clusters of cities accounting for 40 per cent of its GDP. Other assessments indicate that nearly 80 per cent of economic production will be in urban areas by that year. What this underscores is the extremely vulnerable condition of cities as economic assets. Proof of this is available from catastrophic events such as unprecedented flooding in Chennai in 2015 and in Mumbai some years ago. Even with weak insurance cover for the general population, the volume of claims in Chennai crossed Rs.5,000 crore, highlighting the avoidable losses arising out of infrastructure deficits. Much of the total loss was borne by individuals. On the other hand, cities devote vast amounts of their revenue merely to repair roads after the monsoon rather than create new assets. This is a colossal planning failure, and governments should at least now draw up integrated plans to make cities and growing towns resilient to weather events and disasters. This should begin with the creation of information systems that tell administrators about weather patterns, anomalies, flooding data and population impacts.

The Chennai floods exposed the mindless permissions for construction in floodplains, and the high tolerance to commercial encroachment of wetlands. They also highlighted the indifference among policymakers over providing decent housing for migrants. This approach is eroding the economic gains of urban India. If megacities that face seasonal storms are to be strengthened, they should be provided with more water harvesting facilities in the form of urban wetlands with connected drains. Suburban lakes have to be revived. Natural ecological structures are readily available to achieve this. City managers should not commit the mistake of building engineered systems to transfer precious rain flows to the sea, ignoring water security for growing populations. A transparent building code that alerts buyers to hazard-free property is vital. Equally, governments need to ensure that during the monsoon, basic requirements of urban living such as transport, safe water supply, energy and health systems are not severely disrupted. On the positive side, city residents have a higher degree of education, capability and financial wherewithal, and these should help administrations find durable solutions. Much of urbanising India is yet to be built, and it can be designed to withstand the vagaries of monsoons and other weather events.

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