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Flood-prone Mumbai digs in to tackle warming-worsened 'monsoon mayhem'

by Roli Srivastava | @Rolionaroll | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 30 September 2021 17:01 GMT

A woman shelters under an umbrella near the Gateway of India in Mumbai, India, September 13, 2021. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Niharika Kulkarni

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By Roli Srivastava

MUMBAI, Sept 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Like other store owners in this busy central Mumbai market, the Dadhia brothers have long kept the bottom shelf of their sari shop empty, to dodge the flooding that arrives every monsoon.

But they hope next year will be different.

Shopkeepers said a new underground water reservoir - constructed across from the Hindmata market and designed to stave off floods and store water - guzzled down heavy rains that pummelled Mumbai on a recent day, keeping their goods dry.

"I don't think we will need to keep the lower shelves empty anymore from next year," Harish Dadhia told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, smiling tentatively amid colourful saris.

Low-lying Hindmata - a regular haunt of television news channels portraying "monsoon mayhem" - is becoming a test of the solutions being launched to tackle more intense rainfall, warming seas and storms in India's financial capital.

Fiercer rains and about 170 landslides in Mumbai claimed more than 400 lives in the last decade, civic data shows.

Officials in the city of 12 million hope changes like the new flood tanks can help curb that toll of losses and damage.

Mumbai is part of the C40 Cities network, a group of nearly 100 major cities globally working to drive faster action on climate change.

Each has committed to delivering a climate action plan designed to spur uptake of clean energy, boost adaptation to climate shifts and turn the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change into an on-the-ground reality.

Mumbai launched its first Climate Action Plan (known as MCAP) this month. Amid dire predictions that large parts of the city could face inundation by 2050, it brings together different arms of the administration to try to fast-track solutions.


The metropolis on the Arabian Sea coast has recorded "extreme" rainfall - defined as more than 200 mm (7.9 inches) in 24 hours - about a dozen times from 2017 to 2021, double the number of such events in the previous five years.

For Mumbai's citizens, the heavier rains mean inconvenience and heartache: more frequent wading through flooded roads, deaths of loved ones and worsening losses for business and homes as civic workers struggle to pump out the monsoon floodwater.

Aaditya Thackeray, environment and climate change minister for Maharashtra, the Indian state that has Mumbai as its capital, blamed those disastrous impacts on climate change.

Mumbai's annual monsoon period has shrunk from 120 to 70 days, he said, but the volume of rain has increased and is often now accompanied by gusty winds.

"For climate change action, we don't have the luxury of time... We need to put it into fast-track," Thackeray, who is also suburban Mumbai's "guardian minister", said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the city's civic body, has earmarked 3 billion rupees ($41 million) in annual spending to make its new climate plan a reality, with officials saying more will be allocated if needed.

So far the city has constructed three floodwater tanks with a collective capacity of over 26 million litres, which it plans to siphon into the sea during low tide.

Conservationist Subhajit Mukherjee, founder of nonprofit Mission Green Mumbai, also is overseeing the installation of an expected 6,000 rainwater harvesting pits in more than 1,000 municipal gardens, to recharge groundwater and check flooding.

Public posters coax citizens to "catch rainwater" in the pits - which cost up to 3,000 rupees ($40) - in the open spaces of their apartment blocks. More than 500 have been constructed in about 125 gardens since March, Mukherjee said.

As well as preventing flooding, the collected rainwater is intended to conserve water supplies as the city's population and temperatures rise, driving up demand for water, he said.

Mumbai has not seen the serious water shortages faced in other Indian cities thanks to its seven rain-fed lakes.

But it is also planning a costly desalination plant to convert sea water into drinking water in the event of any shortages, officials said.


As the planet - and Mumbai - heat up, the city faces another worry: cyclones.

The Arabian Sea is a particularly fast-warming part of the Indian Ocean, said climate scientist Roxy Mathew Koll.

"The Arabian Sea was cool and cyclone-shy, but we are seeing more cyclones with increased intensity and duration and chances of them coming close to the coast," said Koll, of the Pune-based Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology.

Two cyclones neared Mumbai in 2020 and 2021 - something once rare and a worry in a city already struggling with flooding, he added.

Pressure to act on mounting risks may soon come from new quarters, including residents of upscale south Mumbai, home to the city's stock exchange, iconic Marine Drive, consulates and the palatial residences of some of India's richest.

Last August, the area was flooded for the first time in memory. Water inundated streets and parking lots and a landslide blocked a road commonly used by lawmakers and business heads.

Sheetal Mehta, who lives on Bhulabhai Desai Road, home to millionaires, saw her building's parking lot flood.

This year, cyclone-driven rain and winds were so strong residents sealed their windows with duct tape to stop water seeping in and window panes from shattering, she said.

"To think the sea used to have a calming effect on me," said Mehta, who now worries about the area's future.


Flood risks in Mumbai are compounded by its history of unplanned growth, which has destroyed flood-slowing mangroves and reduced once-wide river channels to constrained creeks.

Expansion of the city into the nearby seabed on reclaimed land also has been a problem, experts said.

A $1.7-billion, eight-lane coastal road is now under construction to connect Mumbai's south and north and reduce congestion.

It includes India's first undersea road tunnel, an underground parking area for about 2,000 cars and a 125-acre garden on the reclaimed land, according to the civic body.

Backers say the road will cut commuting time and fuel use in a city rated as the world's second-most congested after Moscow, according to a traffic rating index of 400 cities.

"If environmental fears are real, so is our daily struggle," said Tulika Bahl, 43, an information technology worker. "Taking my son for his 40-minute football matches and getting to work meetings takes me hours."

But Hussain Indorewala, an assistant professor at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture & Environmental Studies in Mumbai, said he believes worsening flooding in south Mumbai may be linked to the road project and other construction.

Over the years, a business district has replaced mangroves, and a river was rerouted to accommodate airport expansion, Indorewala said.

"Mumbai's problems are a combination of extreme weather events and poor planning," he added, terming the new climate action plan "theatre" if the potential flooding impacts of projects like the new coastal road are not taken into account.

Officials said the road - a project of Uddhav Thackeray, chief minister of Maharashtra and father of minister Aaditya Thackeray - will include a sea wall of boulders to reduce storm surges and the impact of rising seas.

Lubaina Rangwala, associate director of the World Resources Institute's Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, which drafted Mumbai's new climate strategy said it has steered away from conventional ways of tackling congestion and flooding.

"The plan instead looks at prioritising walking, cycling, adding green cover and restoring wetlands and use of natural landscaping among other measures - instead of concrete embankments to address chronic flooding," she said.

($1 = 73.6450 Indian rupees)

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(Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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