Rains have been good this monsoon season so far. But instead of welcoming the bounty, urban India seems to be wallowing in misery. Guwahati is flooded. People in Delhi, Gurugram, Mumbai and Hyderabad are beset with water-logged streets and traffic snarls. Even half an hour of rainfall is enough to make a lot of places go under water. And every time there is flooding, or water logging, the elements stand accused. It is true that, in recent times, rains have been unseasonal. It’s also true that, at times, they have been high on intensity. Overall, however, there is no evidence that it rains more now than it used to half-a-decade ago. By blaming urban floods, or water-logging, on the weather gods, city administrators have been overlooking poor planning and the neglect of natural drainage.
In the past, most cities had water bodies — lakes, ponds, streams, rivulets — which served three purposes: They replenished groundwater, catered to the city’s water needs and channelised excess rainfall to larger water bodies. Most such aquifers have fallen prey to concrete. In Delhi, for example, a stream used to feed the Yamuna at about the place where the busy ITO today stands. It’s not without reason that the area is one of the most water-logged when it rains heavily in Delhi. Bengaluru had more than 250 lakes in the 1960s. There are scarcely 10 such water-bodies in a healthy state in the city today. Chennai’s flood sink on its southern outskirts — the Pallikarnai marsh — was around 5,000 hectares in the 1950s. After the horrific floods in November last year, it was found that it had shrunk to 600 hectares. The rivers, Cooum and Adyar, and the Buckingham Canal in Chennai have become dumping grounds. So have Mumbai’s wetlands near Sewri and other areas in New Mumbai. In fact, the city became alive to the river it has lost to real estate — the Mithi — after the terrible floods of 2005.
When real estate activity blocks the path of water, the city roads get waterlogged. Stormwater drains cannot take the burden of the water that once used to seep into the ground. Moreover, cities do not make the distinction between stormwater drains and sewage disposal outlets. With most cities lacking proper sewerage facilities, people dispose sewage in stormwater drains. The problem becomes worse when industries discharge their polluted water into such drains. All this compromises the capacities of stormwater drains and also results in polluted water flowing into the larger water bodies. While our urban planners issue homilies about environmentally-sensitive planning, it is time they also pay regard to urban hydrology.