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Mumbai’s Climate Change is a Problem

Mumbai’s Climate Change is a Problem

RThe ain was fallingThe Tiwaris called their relatives several hours later, on the night of July 18, 2021. They told them to evacuate their home.

The Tiwaris reside in suburban Mumbai, Surya Nagar is a hillside settlement. They and their families were perched on one of the single-room tenements that atop the steep terrain. Two years ago, some of these homes had been destroyed by a landslide and were being rebuilt. The rain continued to pour down and the Tiwaris began worrying.

The slope collapsed into a torrential mud-rock mixture, and the sound of the slide was drowned out in the heavy rain. Before the Tiwaris’ relatives could make it to safety, their ceiling collapsed. Mud and debris washed down to the Tiwaris’ door. They struggled to get out their house and their narrow lane. Surya Nagar was home to 10 people, including three children. Three relatives were killed by the Tiwaris and 21 others were killed in a landslide near them.

By the end of last year’s monsoon season, an estimated 50 Mumbai residents had died in landslides or wall and house collapses triggered by heavy rain—one of the city’s worst tolls in recent memory.

Left: A ruined house in Bharat Nagar in Chembur where a landslide led to multiple deaths. Right: A detail image from a house that collapsed because of flooding in Vikhroli.
Left: A house where multiple deaths were caused by a landslide. Right: A house that was flooded and collapsed.

The geography of climate risk is not equal. Mumbai and other coastal megacities are at greater risk from rising sea levels and extreme weather. As their populations expand—by 2050, most of the world’s people will live in urban areas—the paving over of permeable soil for houses and roads further increases the risk of flooding.

Like the rest of India, Mumbai is no stranger to what headline writers like to call “monsoon fury.” The city receives an average of about 94 inches of rain annually, more than double New York’s rainfall, and most of it arrives during the four-month rainy season. The city and its residents have been dealing with the monsoon for years by taking precautionary measures, such as clearing out municipal drains and plastering leaky roofs.

These measures have not been enough: The season has been plagued by disruptions to train services, an increase in water-borne disease, occasional landslides, and building collapses. Mumbaikars have tolerated these hazards in exchange for the economic opportunity offered by India’s commercial capital. Mumbaikars are known for returning to work quickly after a disaster.

But climate change could stretch Mumbai’s fortitude to its limits. Once in a while, severe flooding would occur. Intense-rainfall events now occur almost every year. As the number of cyclones in the Arabian Sea increases, sea levels rise, and the city continues to sprawl over floodplains and hills—from 1991 to 2018, the city lost 58 percent of its already limited open space—Mumbai is routinely ranked high on lists of the world’s cities most vulnerable to climate impacts.

Now that they have created a climate action plan for the city, they must address long-standing inadequacies such as drainage and housing and also resolve historical tensions between environmental protection and development interests. Surya Nagar is a hillside area where working-class communities may have to consider relocation. Mumbai is facing new threats and new decisions at every level.

The Mithi River

LMany coastal settlements are like thisMumbai is on land made from water. British colonists razed the hills of the small islands that now make up the Mithi River estuary. They used the debris to create a peninsula on India’s northwest coast.

One British official described how the original seven islands were shook from the mainland by tectonic shiftings. He suggested that reclamation was inevitable. “Providence … decreed,” he wrote, “they should be once more united by the genius and energy of man.”

Despite the location’s challenges—malarial swamps, a lack of fresh water, and the need to build bunds and embankments to protect areas at or below sea level—the city became one of the most important ports in the region, a magnet for trade, industry, and labor. “Is it not an astounding feat,” marveled an Indian writer in 1863, “to recover the land from the sea and make it habitable and free of disease and earn lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of rupees in the process?”

Mumbai grew rapidly during the 20th Century to support its growing population and economy. More streams, creeks and mangroves began vanishing under roads, buildings and sewage. Every year, however, the rivers reminded the cities of their existence. From June to September the southwest monsoon sweeps westward along India’s coast and into the hinterlands, filling the lakes with water and reconnecting rivers with seawater. For Mumbai, one of the world’s most crowded cities, the season’s cool, clean air and leafy shade is a relief—but it’s also a warning, especially in neighborhoods where the tides once flowed.

The city’s defensive rituals, already well established, have multiplied in recent years. People bought umbrellas and footwear before the monsoon. Residents and owners of apartment buildings waterproof their roofs and walls. Low-lying communities often remove merchandise from their bottom shelves during monsoon. Commuters prepare for train delays or traffic jams, and parents watch out for school cancellations.

Kranti Nagar has a wide range of improvised solutions. It is home to both old and new migrants. It is located between the airport, and a series metal scrap yards on either side of the Mithi River. The sky is gray on a September weekday and the ground is darkened by a morning drizzle. Tarpaulins cover Kranti Nagar’s roofs, and clothes are hanging out to dry as best they can. Inside the maze of single- and double-story brick-and-tin tenements, it’s impossible to tell that a river runs nearby. The residents know.

Ranju Devi is a mother of two and reaches up to the light switch about five feet above her head in a tiny room next to the river. That’s how high the water can rise, she tells me, when high tides and heavy rain combine and the river swells beyond its banks. Devi and her husband store the family’s clothes and documents on a high shelf so that important possessions don’t get ruined. Their children and some food are taken to the nearby municipal school, which is on higher ground, when the water rises. Sometimes, they have to move quickly—one night, she says, she woke up to water at her feet.

A few lanes away, the Sonar family can afford a double-story tenement. They watch the news for weather alerts and know their escape routine: first switch off their lane’s power mains, then move their belongings and themselves upstairs. On the second floor, they’re protected from electrocution and drowning, but they’re still exposed to the chemicals and sewage in the floodwaters, which cause outbreaks of gastroenteritis, and the malaria and dengue that spread as the water stagnates. But Tulsa Sonar, the family matriarch, doesn’t see a way out of the neighborhood: Kranti Nagar is in the heart of the city, surrounded by schools, hospitals, small factories, and offices. A family of 11, the Sonars would either have to pay three to five times as much to live in more secure housing in the same area or endure long commutes to the city’s schools and jobs. Their local elected representative promised them a safer place to live.

Tulsa Sonar, the family matriarch, resident of Kranti Nagar. Due to a recent surgery, she is not at her home where there is a lack of adequate toilet facilities but at this temporary home nearby.
Tulsa Sonar, a Kranti Nagar resident and the family matriarch, is

The Sonars first moved here from Nepal in search of work in the mid-’70s, when Tulsa was a teenager, and she says there was less flooding then. The problems began when the regional planning agency removed hundreds of acres of floodplains that were mangrove-covered and built glass-and-steel office buildings on the newly elevated land. Then airport authorities extended the airport’s runways, narrowing and bending the Mithi River. More settlements and small factories rose along the riverbanks, their sewage and effluent further choking the river’s flow. The city also raised the main road to Kranti Nagar, creating an abrupt slope to the riverbank settlements.

Flooding is a problem in some wealthy neighborhoods. Shalini Balsavar, a ground-floor resident in a wealthy seaside housing development in Khar’s western suburb, moves her clothes and valuables to higher shelves when the monsoon arrives. Balsavar swapped her wooden furniture to aluminum legs and sofas. Flooding in the area started in the ’80s and ’90s, her daughter Reetha tells me, when settlements and residential buildings replaced mangrove stands along the shore, reducing the capacity of the land to drain water. In the 2000s, the problem was aggravated when the city raised the main road, increasing water flow into the Balsavars’ property. Some residents living on the ground floor have moved out, while others plan to add floors to their buildings.

The Balsavars have all three floors in their building. This means that Shalini can move to safety if there is a flood. “We have an alternative,” says Reetha, who lives on the second floor. “Others are not so lucky.”

Bandra Bandstand area, one of the wealthier neighborhood of Mumbai.
Mumbai’s wealth neighborhoods have higher building prices.
Residents of Ambedkar Nagar during their seven month long ongoing sit-in protest.
Residents of Ambedkar Nagar held a seven-month-long protest to demand that flood damage be repaired and alternative housing be offered nearby.

That “luck” is becoming more important. Mumbai is now experiencing more days of heavy rain than steady rain during the monsoon season. This is defined as more than two-and-a-half inches in 24 hours. These are interspersed with long dry periods. Throughout western India, extreme-precipitation events increased threefold from 1950 to 2015 due to an increase in atmospheric moisture from a warming Arabian Sea. Research suggests that the frequency of flash floods or landslides and short bursts with extreme rain will increase with increasing temperatures. These trends could be amplified in the city: Scientists from local communities have found that concrete structures can increase temperatures and atmospheric instability, which could be intensifying monsoon rains.

And there are new threats: From 2001 to 2019, rising ocean temperatures led to a 52 percent increase in the region’s cyclone frequency and a 150 percent increase in the number of very severe storms, while cyclone duration increased by 80 percent. Mumbai has not been seriously affected by a hurricane since 1948, although some storms have made an appearance recently.

For reasons scientists don’t fully understand, the monsoon season is also ending later, meaning that city residents must stay vigilant into the fall. “We’ve never been flooded in October,” says Kranti Nagar’s Tulsa Sonar, “but this year, who can tell?”

A concrete fence lines Mithi river.
A concrete fence is built around the Mithi River.

O26 July 2005Three feet of rain fell upon Mumbai, causing more than a thousand deaths in flash floods and land slides and causing millions in damage. In many areas, residents were rescued from rooftops and couldn’t return home for days. Though flooding had been increasing for a decade, the deluge awakened Mumbaikars to the geography of their city—its hemmed-in streams and rivers and its vulnerability to the tides—and the dangers of the monsoon.

Since 2005, civic authorities have spent more and more money on flood-mitigation measures, largely due to prodding from citizens’ groups and judicial orders. In recent years, they’ve begun installing floodgates and pumping stations along parts of the seashore—only six of the city’s 174 stormwater outfalls lie above the high-tide line, so when heavy rain combines with high tide, gates are needed to stop tidal inflow and pumps must physically push rainwater out. Authorities have also set up smaller water pumps along parts of the Mithi River and are experimenting with large underground tanks designed to catch and store water below one of the city’s lowest-lying areas. A long-delayed plan to expand the capacity of the city’s century-old stormwater drains has been revived and updated. And the desilting and unclogging of open drains, streams, and rivers increases every year: By the end of last year’s monsoon, workers planned to remove nearly 220,000 tons of gunk from the Mithi. Some rivers have been reclaimed by the city, and weather monitoring and disaster-response systems have been improved. Evacuation alerts are sent to riverside settlements like Kranti Nagar when there is high tide and heavy rain.

No one knows the limitations of these measures better than Mahesh Narvekar, the head of the municipality’s disaster-management unit. The unit was established in 2000 and began to expand after the 2005 floods. The department maintains a state-of the-art control room in the municipal headquarter, where staff monitor feeds coming from 60 automated weather stations, 147 hospitals and 5,000 CCTVs.

Staff must coordinate their responses to situations such as landslides and housing collapses, tree falls and power outages during the monsoon season. Inside the department’s headquarters, an official shows me old CCTV footage of a tree falling on a moving car; passersby leap into action to rescue the motorist. Another video shows a car slipping into a street that is flooding. Bystanders are watching to see if it is necessary to intervene. “See how our Mumbaikars respond,” the officer remarks proudly, adding that more people should receive emergency training.

Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) Disaster Management Cell.
The municipality’s disaster-management unit monitors conditions.

The unit has been involved in many terrorist strikes and a global pandemic over the past 20 years. “Disaster response is okay; we can do it. We have the experience,” Narvekar says. But he’s worried about the future. Although the department is making efforts to communicate with residents more quickly, improve backup-power supplies, and map hazards better, this may not be enough for residents to be protected from superstorms or the six inches of sea level rise that is expected by 2050.

Expanded drains and river dredging are only able to do so much. “How much can you expand [stormwater] pipes and widen streams in a city that’s so densely developed?” he asks. What’s needed, he believes, is a paradigm shift—a climate-adaptation plan equal to Mumbai’s future. “You can’t stop excess inundation,” he says. “The whole city must become a drain.”

OPosted on August 27, 2008Aaditya Thackeray was the state environment and tourist minister of Maharashtra and launched the Mumbai Climate Action Plan. WebsiteIn coordination with municipal officials, it was touted as the first such initiative in South Asia and India. At the launch, the municipal commissioner, Iqbal Singh Chahal, noted that most of July’s rainfall had fallen in just four days and that cyclones in the region were increasing in frequency. He warned, rather hyperbolically, that much of the office and government district, located in the historic southern tip of the city, could be “underwater” by 2050. Climate change “has come to our doorstep,” he said.

The India office of the Washington, D.C.–based World Resources Institute was entrusted with helping design the climate plan, and its first step was to hold a series of public consultations with local groups and experts. Lubaina Rangwala, the program head of the urban-development-and-resilience team at WRI India, told me in September that her objective was to come up with a “high-level road map” rather than a detailed plan. She believes that engineering solutions like sea walls, pumps and underground tanks are important. However, Narvekar, who heads the disaster-management unit says they are unlikely to be sufficient long-term. “Infrastructure is designed for certain thresholds,” she says. “A tank has a capacity; it can hold a certain amount of water until the tide ebbs and the water can drain.” But if rainfall or tides are extreme, that capacity may fall short, she notes. “The uncertainty of extreme occurrences is what makes us believe that [engineering solutions] won’t be enough.”

In recent years, local architects and researchers have pointed out that walls and other barriers can harden the battle lines between land and water, and have argued that the rivers and sea need to be integrated into the urban landscape—by, for instance, maintaining natural riverbanks that can help absorb overflow. “We do need to see the city as an estuary,” Rangwala says. “We need to think about the percolative nature of the land, and about protecting the natural infrastructures of mudflats and wetlands.”

LeftBombadevi Kojiya, a resident in Ambedkar Nagar. Right: Crowds gather in front of Haji Ali Dargah a mosque/religious monument.

These measures have been blocked by development interests for a long time. For example, after the 2005 flood disaster, a high-ranking committee of state-government officials outlined a series mitigation measures to mitigate flooding. Although the city implemented engineering solutions such as pumps, drains, and retaining walls, the recommendations that carried even short-term costs for development interests—such as flood-risk zoning around waterways that would affect the real-estate market—were ignored.

Rangwala acknowledges the difficulty of implementing systematic reforms in a city that is dominated by commerce. Rangwala believes that the political moment for progress is now, and not just because of global attention to climate change. “We used to say environment was anti-development; now we talk of the two in tandem,” she says. “That change has happened with this [state] government coming in.”

Thackeray, the state environment minister, is a scion of one of Mumbai’s most prominent political families. His grandfather founded Shiv Sena, a nativist party well-known for its attacks on migrants from other parts of the country for decades. After a long struggle against the Bharatiya Janata Party which was its former ally, and the party of Prime Minster Narendra Modi, the party won control of the state government in 2019. Though the Shiv Sena has dominated the city’s government for two decades, its greater power in the state—along with the rise of new, younger leaders—appears to be reshaping its agenda. Thackeray’s father, Uddhav, the head of the state government, enjoys wildlife photography, and his sons are also interested in ecology: Thackeray’s younger brother, Tejas, a wildlife researcher, has discovered several new species—including a swamp eel, a snake, and a lizard—in the state’s lush and underdocumented Western Ghats mountain range.

The younger Thackerays’ interest in the environment is partly generational, says D. Parthasarathy, a sociology professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, an elite research institution. Aaditya, a 31-year-old Indian politician, was one of few Indian state-level politicians to attend the COP26 talks in Glasgow. But the agenda is also politically strategic: Before they took office, both Aaditya and his father backed a popular residents’ movement to save a piece of suburban forest from an infrastructure project, much to the annoyance of their then-allies. They promised to clean up the pollution-laden landfill in another city, which had become a political issue for their community. “The [state] government came to power on such issues,” Parthasarathy says. “They are under pressure to fulfill their promises too.”

That doesn’t mean they can or will break with business as usual in Mumbai. The Shiv Sena government is not halting one of the city’s most controversial and expensive projects, a 29-kilometer coastal freeway along Mumbai’s western waterfront. Environmentalists and architects oppose the road, believing it could cause coastal erosion and flooding. It also serves relatively few commuters. Local fishing communities have complained that their fishing grounds are being destroyed due to extensive reclamation. It’s also not clear how the government will handle recently relaxed national-government regulations that permit more development along the coastline. Political parties need funds, points out Parthasarathy, which makes it risky for them to alienate the city’s wealthy developers. He adds that infrastructure projects have their own political logic: “There’s an imagination to [infrastructure], a sense that it represents modernity.”

Local residents amongst the newly reclaimed land and construction material from the ongoing Coastal Road project.
The ongoing coastal road project is reclaiming land that was lost to the sea.

MOr more than a monthThe Tiwaris stayed with their friends in a nearby neighborhood after the landslide which killed their family members. Their neighbors, the Vishwakarmas had returned to Surya Nagar ignoring the warnings that had been posted on their doors. They are a family of seven, made up of three generations. “How long can we stay with friends?” shrugged 29-year-old Sudhir Vishwakarma, the youngest son.

Sudhir and his friend were among the first to respond to the landslide. Ambulances and earth movers couldn’t access the site without destroying homes. The boys didn’t sleep for days, and hardly ate. Since then, neighbors have kept their doors open every night when it rains and called one another.

Many climate-adaptation projects talk of making cities and communities more “resilient,” more able to cope with or adapt to extreme events like floods and heat waves. Parthasarathy said that without addressing social vulnerabilities, initiatives to increase vulnerability can place the burden on adaptation on individuals and local communities, particularly in developing nations.

Mumbaikars’ ability to help one another in times of crisis or bounce back after a disaster is often celebrated by political leaders and the media. But “the spirit of resilience exists out of compulsion,” Parthasarathy says, “because the state is not doing its job. The people must cope somehow.” Resilience also has hidden costs, he adds. Even people who respond stoically to chronic hazards—“water comes and water goes,” as one resident of Kranti Nagar told me—lose time and money in dealing with them, and may sacrifice their health. Interruptions in schooling are more frequent and making it more difficult to save money is more difficult. “People who are busy surviving aren’t able to invest in the future,” Parthasarathy says.

Parthasarathy prefers to use “word” Transformation. Instead of adapting to and coping with a particular hazard, he says, “we need to reimagine the city and the idea of development.” His research group is working with officials and local groups on a mangrove-restoration project to achieve both environmental and social objectives. He says that mangroves can reduce flooding and also provide livelihoods for local fishermen.

Transforming might mean moving to safer and more affordable housing in the city for Surya Nagar or Kranti Nagar. Roshni Nuggehalli is the executive director at YUVA, a non-profit working with the urban poor, and says that because there aren’t many affordable options, people who have been evicted from unsafe neighborhoods often move to safer ones. Over the past few decades, the government has tried to incentivize developers to rehabilitate informal dwellings—but many of the resulting housing projects have been poorly constructed or unsanitary. “What we need to address is not the climate event,” Nugehalli says, “but the systemic things that aggravate the climate event.”

Indubai Ananda Kasurde, resident of Ambedkar Nagar.
Indubai Ananda Kasurde, a resident at Ambedkar Nagar
View of Ambedkar Nagar, surrounded by high-rises in Malad East.
Ambedkar Nagar can be seen flanked by highrises.

ASurya Nagar was the scene of the landslide., city authorities quickly announced compensation to the families of those who died—several hundred thousand rupees per life, enough to support a poor family for a year or two but of little comfort to the bereaved. One man lost his wife, and two children. He survived because he was working that night. “If there are no people, what’s the point of money?” asks Jaya, Sudhir’s sister-in-law.

When Sudhir’s late father moved here from northern India more than 30 years ago, the neighborhood was set among forested hills and mangrove stands and surrounded by new factories with jobs for migrant workers. Sudhir, who is now an engineer, was able to build a happy life for his children and wife. But he still can’t afford to live in the upscale residential complexes that now crowd the neighborhood.

Sudhir and his neighbors don’t know much about climate change, but they do sense that their home is becoming more dangerous. Many point out that though the 2017 landslide took two lives, last summer’s took 10. (Politicians and local officials probably knew of the danger. In 2021, an internal report warned about the risk to the precariously perched settlements. But most residents are not willing to leave the neighborhood. Nearby homes down the slope or on level ground are more expensive, and the pandemic’s toll on income and work has put them even further out of reach. You can find cheaper digs farther away. They want Surya Nagar to be protected by the municipality with a strong retaining fence. They are likely to get it. Aaditya Thackay directed authorities to accelerate construction of retaining walls in unstable areas after the landslide.

Ambedkar Nagar was a poorer settlement to the west of the hill. However, the wall did not help. Its shanties are located above an array of apartment buildings and just below a forest-covered water reservoir. To protect the reservoir from urban growth, authorities constructed a 15-foot high boundary wall in the 2010s. One rainy night in 2019, water rose up behind the barrier, and then broke through. The torrent carried chunks of concrete and swept away the bamboo tarpaulin shanties below. It killed approximately 30 people and injured 130 others. Later, the city commissioned an audit to find that the wall was poorly designed. Eighty-six families, including relatives and friends, were relocated to low income housing on the opposite side of the city. Another 75 families are still waiting for relocation.

Bomba Devi, a mother to three, is one of the few residents who refused to leave. When she came to Ambedkar Nagar in the mid-’90s, it was not unusual for leopards from the nearby forest to prowl the hillside. Though she lost a young granddaughter in the flash flood of 2019, she rejected the alternative housing because it was located next to chemical plants and a refinery, and residents there had already fallen ill. (Residents’ health problems were so serious that they sued, resulting in a court decision that blocked the city from relocating people to the area.) Her son works at the local packing company, and her grandchildren attend the nearby public school. Her children and she have made small channels in the mud floor to direct the water downstream. Their home is still submerged with water every year.

In May, a cyclone brought heavy rains and strong winds that were strong enough to move some boulders high above the neighborhood. The residents took refuge in a clearing of sorts—a slightly elevated, flat patch of land kept dry with a thatched roof and strategically dug channels. It was safer than being inside their homes, says Moli Sheikh, Bomba Devi’s neighbor, adding, “We draw strength from being together.”

I was surprised to see that there were more than a dozen residents sitting in the clearing and participating in an ongoing sit in. They are demanding that the wall is rebuilt and that they be provided with alternative housing. Many of them had previously paid into a public housing program that was supposed to provide them with new homes. However, they have not received any assistance. “Every time there’s an incident, they come and do a survey” of the damage done and the families that need to be relocated, Sheikh says, pointing to the row of numbers that officials have chalked on his door. “What are they waiting for?”

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