On June 29, Guwahati became the first city in the country to undergo a major drill to tackle floods in an urban setting. The drill was part of the Narendra Modi government’s National Disaster Management Plan. The disaster management agencies were back in action in less than a fortnight, and this time it was no mock drill. Guwahati has been experiencing floods since the first week of July. Three districts as well as the Majuli island — Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s constituency — have been inundated and the government has called in the army in relief and rescue operations. The story seems strikingly similar to the past several years. And not just in Guwahati. The recent cases of urban floods — especially in Chennai and Srinagar — show that there has been little attempt to deal with floods beyond providing relief. Floods have rarely been taken up at the level of urban planning and the government has scarcely tried to understand them as the fallout of changes to a city’s topography and drainage system.
A fundamental principle of hydrology says that during heavy rains, natural waterbodies and interlinked drainage systems hold back some water, use that to replenish groundwater and release excess water into larger waterbodies — oceans and big rivers. Most urban planners in the country have ignored this axiom. In Guwahati, natural and artificial drains are choked with garbage; they get clogged during heavy rains and water spills on to the roads. The Bharalu, the only river which flows through Guwahati and carries rainwater to the Brahmaputra, is a terrible garbage dump today. The river is critical to the city’s hydrology because the level of the Brahmaputra is about 6 meters below Guwahati; the city requires the Bharalu to carry the run-off to the mighty river. Wetlands that could have soaked up the rainwater have also become garbage dumps.
In these respects, Guwahati’s story is strikingly similar to Srinagar and Chennai — and Mumbai a little more than a decade earlier. The Dal Lake in Srinagar is today a third of what it was about a hundred years ago. After the floods in Chennai in November 2015, the National Institute of Disaster Management pointed out that the number of waterbodies in Chennai, had come down to 30 from more than 650 in less than two decades. In most cases, the waterbodies have been victims of real estate development. Such disregard for hydrology seems unfortunate when the government has been talking of urban renewal, especially through its smart cities programme.