Mumbai’s Climate Adaptation Plan: Designing the city for water

Amidst this emergency, the city has begun drafting Mumbai’s Climate Adaptation Plan (MCAP). Much will depend on how the plan is able to fundamentally reimagine and reorganize the city’s relationship with water.
Amidst this emergency, the city has begun drafting Mumbai’s Climate Adaptation Plan (MCAP). Much will depend on how the plan is able to fundamentally reimagine and reorganize the city’s relationship with water.
Amidst this emergency, the city has begun drafting Mumbai’s Climate Adaptation Plan (MCAP). Much will depend on how the plan is able to fundamentally reimagine and reorganize the city’s relationship with water.
Updated on Sep 27, 2021 06:26 AM IST
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ByNikhil Anand

Mumbai’s climate has changed. The cyclones, cloud bursts and very heavy rain days of this past monsoon season have made clear that human-caused climate change is not just something to anticipate in the future, but is already part of our everyday environment. Amidst this emergency, the city has begun drafting Mumbai’s Climate Adaptation Plan (MCAP). Much will depend on how the plan is able to fundamentally reimagine and reorganize the city’s relationship with water.

On August 27, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) launched its Climate Adaptation Planning process in a widely publicised event. The administrative and political leadership present was unequivocal about the urgency of climate change planning for the city. Municipal Commissioner Iqbal Singh Chahal spoke of multiple severe flooding events this past year. Maharashtra’s environment minister Aaditya Thackeray insisted that the planning exercise cannot remain an environmental wishlist on paper. “We don’t have time,” he said.

The BMC, working with not-for-profit environmental groups, World Resources Institute (WRI) India and Waatavaran solicited inputs from experts on key aspects of urban development: waste, energy and buildings, urban flooding and water, air pollution and urban greening. With these inputs, and in consultation with the C40 network of sustainable cities, the city has charged WRI to help it draft a climate action plan. The draft of the plan should be ready in a month, for another round of public feedback.

The plan’s success will depend not only on its expansive vision but also on how well it would serve as an instrument of coordination across different urban bureaucracies and sectors. The process will also need to be broad-based and consultative to ensure the plan will address vulnerabilities of the marginalized. And if it seeks to reduce flooding, it requires nothing less than a complete reimagination of the relation between land and water in the city.

Not an island but an estuary

In their pioneering work from 2009, Soak: Rethinking Mumbai in an Estuary, Anuradha Mathur and Dilip Da Cunha have identified the city’s hostile relationship to its different waters as a prime reason for much of the flooding in the city. They call for the city to move from urban planning projects that exacerbate the city’s adversarial relationship with its rains and sea, towards practices that recognise and accommodate water. The city, they remind us, is not built on seven islands. The city is placed in an estuary.

For the last 300 years, the city has been made solid and dry through relentless projects of land filling. The floods that have regularly visited the city from its earliest days are a direct consequence of this land-making. Rain and tidal waters simply return every year to occupy the same grounds that were once khadi (wetlands), creek, or talab (pond).

As a result, the city’s residents have long been accustomed to living with regular floods. With the intensification of the rains, the increase of cyclones and the rise in sea levels however, flooding is now more severe, more frequent and more widespread. It now occurs in parts of the city that never used to flood. The city’s near future depends on how it plans for and adapts to the persistent and increasing presence of water in the city.

Inhabited Sea is a transdisciplinary, collaborative research project that I was involved with, sought to produce new imaginations of how we may live in cities with water. Started in 2019, the project brought together natural and social science researchers, architects, designers and artists in the United States and in India, to study what it might mean to design Mumbai amidst two gradients of wetness, the sea and the monsoon.

From this research, we find that if Mumbai’s Climate Action Plan proceeds as planning traditionally has in the city, the floods will only get worse. This is because of important blind spots in traditional urban planning processes.

Cities Partitioned and Dried

First, urban plans are siloed and solid. They are narrow, top-down initiatives that divide up urban life into discrete parts of urban space, each addressed in different sections of the plan and in city bureaucracies.

In Mumbai, for instance, storm water drains, sewage and roads are all managed by different departments in the city. Yet, Rhea Shah in her Inhabited Sea project, Drawing on Wetness, found, waters are always mixing: nalas hold sewage, rivers hold storm waters, the sea enters rivers and wetlands, and leaking pipes recharge aquifers.

While conventional planning and even Mumbai’s climate planning process treats these as distinct, they need to recognise that different waters (drinking, rain, sewage and sea) are part of a single interconnected urban waterscape. Accordingly, planning processes like the MCAP need to integrate landscape architecture perspectives that consider the relations of different waters, air and land use systemically, and not as different sectors.

Second, urban planning assumes that the city can be dried. Yet Mumbai is always wet — with the tides, wetlands, humidity, creeks, wells and rain. Rather than dealing with the impossibility of dewatering the city, planners need to see and support existing infrastructures that effectively hold water for some part of every day, month or year. Fortunately, the city still has a wealth of natural infrastructures — creeks, wetlands, nalas, and talabs — which provide considerable service to the city. Even at the MCAP climate consultations, the WRI quantified the significant economic benefit of mangroves that reduce the risks and costs of flooding, hold excess water during rain events, and also pull carbon out of the atmosphere. They are a mitigation as well as an adaptation infrastructure for the city.

Yet, because the value of natural infrastructures is neither recognised nor calculated in urban planning or development processes, their loss is assumed to not cost the city. Thus, large infrastructure projects, like the coastal road or metros are proposed and constructed without studying how much the loss of trees or permeable ground will cost the city in future flooding. As Thackeray said at the launch, there has to be a climate lens for every infrastructural development. A road that floods the city cannot be called development.

Valuing natural infrastructure

Natural infrastructures need to be more accurately valued when making development decisions. To some extent, this is happening with mangroves. But the rate fixed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2009 is a gross underestimate of the ecosystem services provided by mangroves. The value assigned, at approximately 10 lakh per hectare, does not even cover the cost of land in Mumbai! The compensation for natural infrastructure loss, like mangrove habitat loss, needs to incorporate both the costs of land and the environmental services provided. Similarly rates, possibly payable to the city environment department, should be fixed for other natural infrastructures such as wetlands, intertidal regions and creeks and river floodplains, whose benefits — carbon sequestration, recreational spaces, flood adaptation and infrastructure — make the city a suitable place to live.

Natural infrastructures are generally more cost effective (they are free) and can better complement costly engineering solutions such as storm water drains and water retention tanks. Natural infrastructures are also more spatially efficient. They are often valuable commons that are used by many of the city’s more marginalized populations for work.

As such, the Mumbai adaptation plan needs to recognise and support multiply-used urban commons that serve as recreation areas, permeable water holding infrastructures and carbon mitigation spaces at different times of year. This is especially critical for a congested city like Mumbai.

Maintaining water infrastructure

Since the 1920s, when the city constructed the massive Tansa dam, it has been found that adding new supply does not solve Mumbai’s water problems. Instead, new source development constructs new problems. New dams caused deforestation and the displacement of adivasis in Thane district, Bharat Kaushal Punjabi pointed out in his 2015 thesis on the politics of water contestation in Mumbai-Thane region. New desalination plants consume lots of energy, raise sea temperatures and pollute water, causing harm to marine biodiversity. Neither deforestation and displacement, nor pollution and energy use are in line with Mumbai’s mitigation and adaptation goals.

The city also has underground water sources it is not adequately using. For a long time, we have heard that Mumbai’s ground water is contaminated and cannot be used. Yet, many residents of the city are already using well water, obtained through its private water tanker network. Can these resources be made available for the public? Following a year of low rainfall in 2009, the BMC found, renovated, and used water from 12,531 wells in the city in one month alone. With adequate maintenance, Mumbai’s wells can continue to hydrate the city. Necessary policy changes can make everyday water insecurity and vulnerability, particularly for Mumbai’s informal residents, a thing of the past.

The MCAP assessment on flooding and water resources points to the need to augment water sources in the city through desalination plants. This activity is fraught for all sorts of reasons, not least because new sources are totally unnecessary. As I show in my book, Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Politics in Mumbai (2017), there is no water scarcity in city. All of the data points to the fact that the city receives enough water from its sources. The problem has to do with the significant inefficiencies of water distribution and leakages. According to one BMC report in 2009, these account for approximately 30% of water “lost” in the city.

A new paradigm

Following the catastrophic floods of July 26, 2005 the Chitale Committee Report pointed out that the rain event was an exceedingly rare, one-in-a-hundred-year event and that expanding the city’s existing storm water infrastructure was necessary. Together with other interventions in the city, these would ensure that the network would work during normal times. But normal times are a thing of the past now. The extremely heavy rainfall of July 2005 has happened several times since, including this year. Rainfall intensity no longer meets our historical expectations. The city of Houston, for example experienced three one-in-500 year flood events in the span of just two years!

As such fforts to manage the city’s rains in the present and future, based on 100-year-old technologies will always come up short, and more so because we are living in climate changed times. Storm water engineers working at MCGM confess that the storm water improvements made in the last 10 years are already insufficient for the new normal. City officials cannot expect to drain the seas, intense rains and storms of the present and near future through conventional technologies. With new water and landscape approaches, however, they can find ways for all the city’s residents to live better with water.

Nikhil Anand is associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-principal investigator of Inhabited Sea ( inhabitedsea.org). This piece is based on his testimony at the sixth BMC Stakeholder Consultations of the Mumbai Climate Action Plan on Urban Flooding & Water Resource Management held on September 10

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Monday, November 29, 2021