Updated: October 15, 2014 8:18:59 am
Unprecedented disasters are, ironically, becoming frequent phenomena. The Mumbai floods of 2005, Barmer floods of 2006, Leh floods of 2010 and Uttarakhand floods of 2013 are some of the “never-before” kind of events in recent years. Many of them also had a significant urban impact. Then, the Jammu and Kashmir floods occurred, and people woke up to friends and family stuck on their rooftops in Srinagar. Cities will be hit increasingly harder in the times to come. The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction has identified floods as the singlemost widespread disaster risk to urban settlements globally. The poor undoubtedly will be the hardest hit, as always.
Rivers have attracted settlements since ancient times. What is new is the aggressiveness of these settlements. What used to be riverfront development earlier has now degenerated into “river-bed development”. Rivers, more so the monsoon-fed ones, have two distinct channels — one where the water flows during “normal” times, and the other that it spreads into during peak flow in the rainy season. In most riverfront cities, urban development has gradually crept into this second channel, belabouring under a perceived protection of embankments or the ignorant comfort of the fact that a big flood hasn’t happened in the last few years. Such lands are being encroached upon by squatters or sold to unsuspecting buyers by unscrupulous developers.
Besides river beds, urban lakes, wetlands and drainage channels are being encroached upon in similar fashion. Humayun Rashid and Gowhar Naseem of the Jammu and Kashmir State Remote Sensing Centre presented facts to this effect at the World Lake Conference in 2007 in Jaipur, where they used satellite imagery to trace the physical growth of Srinagar between 1911 and 2004. The statistics and maps show a phenomenal increase of built-up space from a mere 3 per cent to 15 per cent of the city area. Of this additional 12 per cent land that the growing city gobbled up, 10 per cent came from low-lying wetlands and marshes while 2 per cent came from open water surfaces, meaning lakes and water channels. The study concluded that over 9,100 hectares of open water surface and wetlands have been totally lost to other land uses during the period. That equals 18,000 football fields. In the process, more than 50 per cent of the lakes and wetlands of Srinagar have been lost. No wonder then that nature decided to reclaim them, at least for some time.
Let not the urban growth story fool us into believing that newly developed city areas will necessarily lead to a good, safe life. Whether heritage town, slum or new urban development, if there is a city in a flood plain or on reclaimed low lying land, water will always find its way in one day. Climate change may make sure that that day comes sooner than later. High population densities, concrete surfaces and poorly maintained drainage, sanitation and solid waste infrastructure make urban areas more prone to floods as the water is not able to drain quickly. Srinagar, where parts of the city remained inundated for three weeks, is the latest reminder of this water-trap phenomenon. Much of this developmental mess takes place because our cities are growing untamed. Of over 6,000 cities in India, only about 2,000 have proper master plans, while the bulk, mostly small and medium towns, is growing with lax or no regulations. By the time plans are put in place, much of the area would already have been poorly developed and the damage irreversible. Considering that 25,000 people are added to Indian cities each day, time is running out.
A handful of developed cities are attracting suburban dwellers with their modern apartments, expressways and malls. Let not these embellishments lead one to ignore the underlying risk in these cities. You don’t have to go far from the national capital to see a prime example of a ticking time-bomb. Noida came up as a suburb in violation of the National Capital Region concept that had originally advocated against congesting the periphery of Delhi. The location was too attractive for the home state to let go of the opportunities it offered due to its proximity to Delhi. Successive changes during and after the initial urban planning processes have ensured that high-density and high-worth development has taken place in what used to be the Yamuna’s playground. Jamal Ansari, former director of the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi and a lead planner for Noida’s master plan, rues that political and popular pressure distorts urban plans and increases disaster risks exponentially. He underscores the fact that the embankments that protect Delhi and Noida from the Yamuna are not infallible.
While it is easy to blame bad urban development and governance for the state of affairs, it needs to be acknowledged that good citizenry is as much a requirement for safe and sustainable cities as good governments. International good practices of liveable and healthy cities are backed with grassroot action plans, citizens’ engagement and participatory planning and action. To understand our cities better and to play a positive role in their future, it is important to understand the origins of urban planning. Clarence Perry, a pioneer of city planning, had established the neighbourhood as a basic unit for a city. He defined the neighbourhood as that space wherein a child could walk to the local elementary school within 10 minutes, without having to cross a major road. This translated into neighbourhoods of one-fourth of a mile radius, with the elementary school and conveniences at the centre, houses linked with connecting greens and no major roads crisscrossing them. Ebenezer Howard, another British urban planner, put forth the idea of garden cities. Our very own Bhubaneswar was planned on similar green principles by German Otto Königsberger, with wide roads and many gardens and parks, remnants of which are visible even today behind the humdrum of the new-age congestion. Good cities, through fundamental principles and friendly planning, were safe cities. “Smart cities” must bring them back.
The writer, an urban planner specialising in environment and disaster management, is co-founder of SEEDS
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