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How to escape watery graves in a city

All through the year, Delhi sets the stage for this monsoon mess by stuffing tonnes of garbage, construction waste, road dust and domestic sewage into its gutters and storm water channels.

columns Updated: Jul 18, 2016 16:28 IST
Shivani Singh
Flooding is yet to claim lives in Delhi. But every time it pours, the city comes to a halt.
Flooding is yet to claim lives in Delhi. But every time it pours, the city comes to a halt.(Raj K Raj/HT Photo)

Like Delhi, Beijing also suffers from both urban flooding and water scarcity. In 2012, when flooding killed 79 people in the Chinese capital, the authorities blamed the volume of rain and not their city’s mindless concretisation and inadequate drainage for the tragedy.

Sounds familiar? But the Chinese people mounted pressure on their government. Even the state-controlled press joined in. “It was beyond understanding that city planners gave priority to high-profile vanity projects while ignoring the need for storm drains and the like,” The Economist quoted The China Youth Daily in 2015.

Chinese president Xi Jinping stepped in and his government announced the development of 16 sponge cities. The project, launched in 2015, is about developing storage ponds, filtration pools and wetlands in residential areas, and roads and squares built with permeable materials that allow storm water to soak into the ground more effectively.

The pilot projects in Beijing, Shanghai and Xinjiang have shown that 85% of the storm water run-off can be reduced yearly, China Water Risk, a non-profit organisation, reported. The harvested water is meant to be used in toilets, for washing the streets and firefighting, the Economist wrote.

Flooding is yet to claim lives in Delhi. But every time it pours, the city comes to a halt. Reports of clogged roads, sewage backflow and traffic jams kill the joys of the first rain, almost instantly. All through the year, Delhi sets the stage for this monsoon mess by stuffing tonnes of garbage, construction waste, road dust and domestic sewage into its gutters and storm water channels.

Before the monsoon, the road-owning agencies start cleaning these choked drains. A huge amount of muck and silt is dug out. While some of it is carried to the dumpsites, the rest sits in piles at the edge of the drains before the first shower drives the load back to where it came from.

The storm water should be soaked up by green patches along the roads and pavements, recharging local aquifers. (S. Burmaula/HT Photo)

The other triggers for the civic collapse during the rains are Delhi’s mindless appetite for growth and greed for land. At 98%, Delhi has the highest level of urbanisation anywhere in India. The result is heavy concretisation and little open space.

Storm water drains and natural channels that used to carry rainwater to the Yamuna have either been converted to mega structures such as Barapullah elevated road and Dilli Haat-INA, or taken over by slums and unauthorised colonies. Ponds and water bodies are long lost to real estate development. Elsewhere, residents have covered the storm water drains to park their cars or extend their lawns.

The Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning and Engineering) Centre, in its 2012 report on storm water management, had suggested to the government to treat run-offs from roads locally. Right now, all storm water that falls on Delhi roads goes into the drains and then the nallahs and the river. There is no groundwater recharge. These nallahs also carry sewage. So, the storm water that finally reaches the Yamuna is nothing but a toxic mix.

Instead, the storm water should be soaked up by green patches along the roads and pavements, recharging local aquifers. With 25% of Delhi’s surface being roads, the rainwater harvesting potential is huge, the report concludes.

But any such initiative requires administrative unity and a political will. With more than 100 agencies running the national capital including as many as 17 in-charge of roads, drains, traffic and civic management, it has never been easy to fix accountability for any civic mess.

Accepting that cleaning up Delhi is “no rocket science”, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on Sunday said that the problem was “political” and the solution lied in getting Delhi full statehood and same-party rule at all levels. But as Delhi waits for the big electoral and legislative outcomes, there is no reason why different agencies cannot form small working groups for better coordination on key civic and infrastructure issues.

Beijing realised that retrofitting its existing drainage systems with larger pipes was a long haul and harvesting rain was a far cheaper, faster way to prevent flooding. Delhi’s big challenge is that at least 45% of the city still awaits sewer lines. As they work on it, what’s stopping the authorities from tapping a little rain where it falls?

And what’s stopping us, citizens who crib every time the city goes under water, from taking community initiatives to protect the storm water drains in every neighbourhood??

shivani.singh@hindustantimes.com