Flood disasters are outcomes of excessive control over water, over people, over money, and over political power.
In August 2000, the city of Hyderabad in central India recorded a total of 469 mm of rain in one day. It led to one of the worst floods in the city since 1908 when the Mosi River was severely flooded. As many as 90 residential areas in the city were underwater. Fifteen people were killed. This event is an example of recurrent urban floods in many cities of South Asia.
The 2020 Hyderabad floods received high coverage in the media because the rains were exceptionally heavy. The flood disaster was not only due to high rainfall but human interference was equally to blame. Today, floods are common in major and smaller cities of India. Every season, even when rainfall is normal, a city’s low-lying areas are inundated. But these outcomes are treated as new normal. In the last few decades, the character of rainfall has undergone shifts. Rainfall that we considered natural is altered.
Flood events are the consequence of rainfall, surface runoff, and groundwater dynamics. When human interventions interfere with a region’s hydrological continuity, the result is damage and destruction. Although nature is not at fault, the establishments and their ideologies present the situation as a natural calamity, whereas flood disasters are not natural. Human follies and institutional dysfunctions turn natural events into disasters. Water coming in has to flow out.
Baby rescued in flood
In Japan, high magnitude earthquakes are common, but casualties are few. This is because Japan maintains a high degree of preparedness for dealing with earthquakes. Regulated construction, design, and town planning keep the potential of a hazard becoming a disaster in the future low.
In South Asia, that generally is not the case. Social contexts, governance, politics, and level of preparedness are too inadequate to deal with floods. Cheraapunji in Meghalaya, North India, for example, receives one of the heaviest rainfalls in the world. Yet, the area chronically suffers from water shortages, not because water is in short supply but because of poor management.
How can a region with the highest rainfalls in the world complain of water scarcity? Shortages result because of poor planning, faulty engineering, lack of social oversight, and managerial failure. Values such as equity, the welfare of the community, and judicious use of water are neglected. The 2020 flood disaster in Hyderabad is also an example of institutional failure over many decades. It is an outcome of many oversights. It is a result of the destruction of the city’s lakes that once served as a cushion to floods.
Property on lake
City of Lakes
In India, not only Udaipur, a city in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, but also Hyderabad, with about 3,000-4,000 lakes, can be called a city of lakes. By taking advantage of the undulating landscape of the Deccan plateau, these lakes were built more than 400 years ago as a cascading system. A lake at a higher level was formed by creating a barrier against the stream to store a certain volume of water. When this storage is filled, water would be allowed to overflow through an opening to the next lower downstream lake, making a network of lakes that are linked from higher to lower elevations. Hussain Sagar at the core of the city, one of the largest artificial lakes in India, is part of the cascade. Water from the cascade of lakes finally flows into the Mosi River.
This cascade functions as a water management arrangement, fulfilling many objectives. First, the lakes channelize and regulate surface flow. Secondly, decentralised storages are created across the city. The tanks simultaneously fulfil both drought-proofing and flood-cushioning objectives. When there’s excessive rainfall, flow is channelized to the lake, modulating the peak. When there’s less than normal rainfall, water storage is available for the city. The lakes would also support flora and fauna and modulate local weather. The lakes would recharge groundwater, supporting the use of wells and bore wells.
The development of the connected lake system cannot be attributed to one single ruler, Nawab, or an individual. It was the product of a social commitment across generations. Elevations or gravity energised the system within the social context. This arrangement is unlike that of building a dam at a gorge away from a settlement to create a water reservoir and then use pipes, canals, and pumps to convey water to an area where it is used. With tanks, one did not have to bring drinking water from distant rivers, pump it to a higher elevation, then allow it to flow by gravity to cities. The cost per litre of water delivered from modern systems is much higher than that from tanks. The lakes system has a much lower carbon footprint compared to the centralised system of supplies mentioned above.
Houses on rivers
In the last fifty years, the lake system has seen almost a deliberate, conscious process of puncture and rupture as the city’s unplanned growth progressed. Indeed, there has been a growth in population, but the expansion was an outcome of the dictates of the real estate sector working hand in glove with the political establishment. Most buildings constructed accorded preference to a chosen locality over others. Properties were developed first and then roads and other services came to the buildings. They interfered with lakes’ inflows and outflows. In many places, parts of lakes were reclaimed and filled with muck to create land. The areas reclaimed were sold to private developers. In the process, the water flow routes broke down. The expansion was not guided in a planned way of balanced urbanism.
A lake is not a static entity but has inflow and outflow. The boundary of a lake contracts in summer and expands in the rainy season. The construction activities on the banks of lakes interfere with this character of lakes as muck is dumped to turn water surface into the land. The water levels in lakes are affected, rupturing the interconnected balance. Since the system is imbalanced when excess rainfall occurs, water has nowhere to go.
Today, we see a contradiction. I do not believe that water has come to cities and houses, but it is the other way. In fact, cities and houses have been allowed to occupy and encroach into water space. Now, water is protesting and rebelling in the form of flood disasters. These are human-induced flood disasters—an outcome of the nexus between the real estate sector, the politics, an insensitive bureaucracy, a lackadaisical judiciary, and unconcerned civil society actors. Without looking at this nexus, any effort to find a solution to mitigate flood disasters will be incomplete.
Flood disasters are outcomes of excessive control over water, over people, over money, and over political power. It is in this socio-political space that water challenges and effective flood disaster management fails. The present-day controllers do not want to let go of their domination. This enterprise resists changes and any quest for alternatives.
The result is that nature has lost. As the recent Das Gupta review argues: “We have collectively failed to engage with Nature sustainably, to the extent that our demands far exceed its capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on.” This loss comes with widespread social and economic loss, characterised by inequity for marginalized sections of the population. It is necessary to contest the hegemony of collusion within a democratic framework for healthy nature, water, and society. It requires continuous critical conversations about balancing political power in society.
The role of informed public pressure groups is the key to this journey. In this journey, we need to re-orientate the way we conceptualize water and overcome its siloed sectoral uses. Access to information- and knowledge-sharing among various actors, social leaders, and civic movements is the key.
A major reform must happen in the way water education is organised and delivered. Water resource education has been mechanistic and compartmentalises learning and knowledge. Learning is geared to serve the vested interests of the dominant classes, large-scale production of profitability, and inequality. It encourages the deployment of technology without considering the differential impacts on segments of society. The status quo of technological determinism rather than flexibility is reproduced and perpetuated.
We need to bring local knowledge to the foundation of water engineering education and make learning socially relevant. Education must nurture space for students to pursue new perspectives, imaginations, and possibilities. At a more practical level, we must offer students scholarships and fellowships in pursuing creative ways of engagement in this pursuit of a new social compact for healthy water.
With a background in engineering, Dr. Jasveen Jairath obtained her master’s/doctorate in Economics to study the political economy of water management technologies from an interdisciplinary perspective. She has then traversed her professional journey through research, advocacy and networking at various levels as a consultant, founding director of South Asian water institute, steering water networks at regional and local levels, and publishing research articles in national and international fora.