Floodwater gushes through a street following heavy rains, in Falaknuma, Hyderabad, October 14, 2020. Photo: PTI.
Not every instance of severe rainfall can be directly attributed to climate change.
This said, Hyderabad has indeed received an anomalously high amount of rain in the last week. This downpour was the product of a depression that originated over the Andaman Sea, turned north-northwest and finally towards the Andhra Pradesh coast. Although such depressions usually dissipate quickly after making landfall, this depression led to intense rain because it had retained a very high amount of moisture. This moisture load is expected to become higher as climate change intensifies, warming the surfaces of seas and oceans and increasing evaporation.
Singapur, a township within the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, received 320 mm of rain on October 13 and then 157.3 mm on October 17, for a total of 477.3 mm in only four days. As many as 11 stations received up to 200 mm of rain in a day. To compare, Agumbe, in the Malnad region of the Western Ghats, records relatively few days of more than 200 mm in a day even at the peak of the monsoon in a good rainfall year.
We must be prepared for such downpours to be the norm instead of the exception. And given the generally poor state of India’s urban hydrological ecosystems and infrastructure, we should also expect our cities to shut down and become sickened more often.
Hyderabad city itself has received, and ignored, multiple warnings. In November 2019, for example, Srinivas Chary, the director of the Centre of Urban Governance at the Administrative Staff College of India, had said Hyderabad’s “resistance to vagaries is high but day-zero is a 365-day reality”.
There is also no paucity of data to demonstrate climate change’s dire consequences for India as a whole, as well as for different parts of the country. So not taking swift remedial as well as reformatory action has only been becoming more and more inexcusable, as each passing day in the ‘business as usual’ scenario only endangers more and more people.
The apparent causes of the urban flooding are so easy to enumerate that we don’t need experts to chime in: the state of the Musi river, poor drainage and unplanned construction. And while this time Hyderabad is in the spotlight, it is easy to cast one’s mind back and find quite a few examples of such ‘anomalous’ events that are no longer anomalous. The 2015 Tamil Nadu floods, including in Chennai, in particular stick out. More recently, the same horrors played out in a worse way in Assam, which had to deal with flooding, water-borne diseases, the local coronavirus epidemic, stranded animals and a burning oil-well all at once.
The loss of natural water regulation is a direct consequence of urban encroachment and the destruction of wetlands located close to urban conglomerates.
As The Wire Science reported in February this year, “The bad news is that India’s cities have lost 25 ha of wetland for every one sq. km’s increase of built-up area in the last four decades. … The biggest offenders were the metropolitans of New Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad, which treat wastelands as their private dumping grounds.” Indeed, according to a report published earlier this year, between 1970 and 2014, Mumbai lost 71% of its wetlands; Ahmedabad, 57%, Greater Bengaluru, 56%, Hyderabad 55%, and the NCR, 38%.
In addition, India’s rivers across the breadth of the country, but especially those that flow anywhere near our cities – including the Alaknanda in Badrinath, the Yamuna in Delhi, the Hooghly in Kolkata, the Jhelum in Srinagar, the Cauvery in Trichy and the Mithi in Mumbai – are dying a collective death. And government authorities are creating this disaster by allowing massive encroachment, unauthorised construction work and dumping waste in water bodies.
In many cases, urban ‘planners’ have resorted to shifting the natural flow of rivers to make way for an airport or a high-rise building, conceited enough to believe they can evade the consequences of their actions as well.
With Hyderabad having been more navigable with boats and canoes than cars and bikes in the last week, administrators have estimated a total loss of Rs 6,000 crore. However, it is anyone’s bet if the city – and India’s many other cities – will learn this time, or if they will simply resume unrestricted construction. The latter is quite probable.
In any case, the agendas of our TV news channels change thrice a day while rainfall and drainage patterns shift over many years, so the average viewer is likely to forgot the travails of the 2020 monsoons in a few months.
Kunal Sharma is an assistant professor at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.