LIVING DOWNSTREAM: Mumbai Floods and the Mithi River
While most of Mumbai has struggled to reach home over the last few days, very few have questioned why Mumbai has suddenly become a victim of floods that would have done Bihar proud. Yes, it is possible that Mumbai has received more than her share of rain, but that still does not account for why the water took so long to recede. Also no one seems to be questioning why the flooding has been particularly bad in the Kurla-Kalina region; no one seems to have made the connection with the mysterious Mithi River and the Mahim Creek.
The Mithi River, which at one time must have been a glorious channel of water, has now been reduced to a filthy nalla of muck and pollution. The river runs from Powai, reaching the Arabian Sea via Kurla and Kalina. The Mahim Creek acts both as a filter for the incoming Arabian Sea and a drain for the river.
In 1999, when the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation Ltd (MSRDC) gained permission to start construction on the Bandra-Worli SeaLink, reclamation work at the mouth of the Mahim Creek began. In 2001, the Indian People's Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights was requested to conduct an investigation into the feasibility of the Bandra Worli SeaLink. During the investigation numerous experts and environmentalists deposed before the Tribunal objected that reclamation and blockage of the Mahim Creek could lead to increased flooding.
To quote the report (An Enquiry into the Bandra Worli SeaLink Project, July 2001 Pg 23):
- By disturbing the natural course of events and redrawing the geography of the Mahim Creek the link has gradually upset the flow of effluents and floodwaters that drain into the Arabian Sea. Experts say that this in turn may cause the Mithi River, which starts upstream at Powai and runs along the Andheri-Kurla Road to back up and cause inordinate flooding along the adjacent areas.
(The report is available here).
If one connects this with the flooding that Mumbai saw on Tuesday July 26, 2005 it appears that maybe the experts were correct. In the past, even with heavy rainfall, water would never collect for such a long period of time. Also, the particularly bad flooding in Kurla-Kalina points to the fact that the river was not able to discharge the water as rapidly as it used to. One cannot of course attribute all the flooding to this but in our quest for development, so often we simply fail to take into account nature and its forces that will follow a set pattern whether we choose to work with it or not. There is a definite need to ecologically evaluate how the flooding linked to the change in land use pattern in the suburbs due to construction of flyovers, concretization of the marsh lands and increased construction.
Taking heed of warnings and learning from past mistakes — especially when it comes to large scale development projects — is not something that our government likes to do, however. Recently Shripad Dharmadikari and others released their study on the Bhakra Nangal Dam and its impact on irrigation in Punjab. They found that the dam, which was portrayed as the temple of modern India, in reality contributed to under 8% of Punjab's irrigation requirements and has caused water logging and salination of acres and acres of land in Punjab.
The government when faced with this report instead of looking at the recommendations and seeing how one could use the findings from the Bhakra Nangal to prevent similar occurrences in future dams has chosen to start a defamation campaign against the authors and undermine the credibility of the report.
But then, in our present system it pays to make mistakes and create disasters because the bigger the relief package the more people in the line of authority benefit. Every disaster is followed by the same pattern – Stage 1: the lack of early warnings, the existence of good Samaritans, the resilience of the people, Stage II – the
collection of relief and rehabilitation aid, Stage III – relief and rehabilitation not reaching the most needy and a recognition that many of the effects of the disaster could have been avoided if a few small precautions had been taken earlier.
As Sandra Steingraber in her book Living Downstream tells the tale: "Once there was a village near a river, every day the villagers would find one or two people drowning in the river. The villagers would rush and try and save these people. In time the villagers became proficient in rescuing people who were drowning in the river and the pattern continued for a while; until somebody began to question "what was happening upstream that caused these people to fall in?"
Deepika D'Souza, India Centre for Human Rights and Law. July 2005