On Saturday, when rain beat down heavily on Delhi, the city witnessed a deluge of the Waterworld variety. But unlike Universal Studios, which spent a fortune on building seawater enclosures for one of its most-expensive movies, we didn’t have to pay anything to get the special effect. Our priceless inefficiency and civic apathy were just enough.
Vehicles sank in waist-deep water. Roads caved in. Trees got uprooted. Power lines snapped. Traffic stood still for hours. Our “world-class” Metro stations and airport were flooded. There was little between slums and upscale neighbourhoods when it came to chronic sewage backflow. It was the same sinking feeling Delhiites get every monsoon.
As an annual ritual, tonnes of silt and plastic were dug out from gutters and storm water channels a couple of months before the rains. Some of it was carried to the dumping sites. The rest was left at the roadside and went back into the same drains after the first shower. With it went down the road agencies’ claims of 100% desilting that, as the PWD minister promised, was to be video-recorded from this year.
The remaining damage was done by the residents themselves. Hungry for space, they covered the storm water drains outside their homes to park their cars or extend their lawns. Others had no qualms dumping construction waste from their last home improvement into the channels meant to carry the rainwater.
Every year, the traffic police release a list of spots vulnerable to waterlogging. Year after year, the same stretches of roads make it to the list but nobody ever bothered to fix the problems for good. Civic agencies try temporary measures like installing pumps on the roadside to suck out rainwater. But they usually run out of diesel when the city needs them the most.
New Delhi’s sewage lines were laid by the British and have not been upgraded since. Elsewhere in the city, the last overhauling exercise ended in 1981. As a result, the trunk sewers are heavily silted, while the peripheral ones are mostly damaged and inadequate for the increasing load. Almost 40% of the city is anyway not linked to the drainage network which includes storm water drains that now carry sewage.
In 2007, the government decided to draw a master plan for the city’s drainage system. After a five-year delay, IIT-Delhi was appointed as a consultant last year. Two rainy seasons have passed since and we are still awaiting the study report.
Storm water runoffs are a concern in many cities across the world. But their worries are different. In the United States, civic agencies are trying to safeguard the natural water systems against pollution by filtering or soaking up rainwater where it falls rather than collecting it in sewers and then transporting it to nearby rivers, lakes and streams.
The New York City’s Greenstreets programme is working on replacing paved roadbed into green spaces filled with trees and shrubs to soak up the storm water. One acre of Greenstreet can hold approximately 55,000 gallons of storm water. Most of Chicago’s alleys were originally constructed without any sewer infrastructure. To avoid flooding, the city administration started building permeable pavements in 2006 that allows infiltration of up to 80% of the annual rainfall they receive.
We, on the other hand, have done our best to cover every bit of open space with concrete. At the latest hearing of the Green Tribunal on the issue, government agencies could not cite even a single residential neighbourhood where tree roots were not sealed with cement. But who cared if Delhi’s dirty urban run-off made the Yamuna an open sewer? Only, now it is the turn of our roads; the roads that lead to our homes.