Is the Mumbai flooding onslaught due to climate change?


The economic impacts of climate change will be borne by coastal communities (Photo: Rahul Kumar)

Currently, India's financial capital Mumbai is under a red alert from the weather department over heavy rains. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) too has asked people to keep away from coastal areas for fear of tides likely to touch 4.34 metres.

This year, the Mumbai monsoon made news on the very first day of its arrival with the city recording a massive 231 mm of rain in just 24 hours. In all likelihood, India's financial powerhouse is likely to get flooded again in the next few days.

Experts say the main culprit for Mumbai's woes—flooding caused by heavy rainfall and repeated cyclones—are the impacts of a worsening climate and poor urban development. The city and its residents are paying a heavy economic cost for climate change. If the weather behaves unpredictably, as it is doing currently, the poorer sections will pay more. 

Is climate change and poor planning casting its shadow on Maximum City Mumbai (Photo: Rahul Kumar)

Global think tank ODI says that Mumbai's economic losses are staggering. It says: "the city is ranked fifth in the world with annual losses of $284 million. In July 2005, flooding killed 5,000 people and caused economic damage totalling $690 million. Floods will only get worse when combined with heavier rains, higher sea levels and more severe storms associated with climate change."

The report, 'Assessment of Climate Change over the Indian region', also predicts: "In fact, experts have projected annual losses from flooding will reach $6.1 billion per year in 2050. Most of these losses are uninsured and borne by individuals or small businesses."

With the city going down under freak weather conditions like back-to-back cyclones Taukatae and Yaas, India Narrative speaks with Dr Anjal Prakash, Research Director at the Indian School of Business, to find solutions to Mumbai's climate crisis. Dr Prakash was the coordinating lead author for the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate and the lead author in the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report which is currently ongoing.

According to Dr Prakash, it is not just Mumbai but other Indian cities too which are bearing the brunt of extreme climatic events. He said: "We have seen the flooding issues in Mumbai for many years now. The question to be asked is why is it happening year after year?"

A Mumbai local railway platform. Are India's cities climate resilient? (Photo: Rahul Kumar)

Some of the flooding problems in Mumbai and other cities are apparent—the drains are not cleaned; there is construction over water bodies; drainage systems are blocked and no heed is paid to environmental planning and water does not have an outlet after the heavy rains.

As part of solutions, Dr Prakash says: "For Mumbai the mangroves are the first line of defence. We should preserve the existing ones and restore those which have been destroyed. We should also re-look at all the committees that gave reports after the major flooding events happened in Mumbai. This will give us valuable insight into how to make Mumbai fool-proof in the future."

Other measures that can help the city of Mumbai as per Dr Prakash’s suggestions are three–“first the city’s infrastructure has to be climate resilient so as to withstand climate-induced extreme events such as cyclones, excessive rainfall etc. Second, the urban planning must go with the environmental planning keeping natural resources into account. For example. Mithi river which has become a drainage must be revived. Third, the city must invest into its green infrastructure such as water bodies, forests and natural drainage and strengthen them”.

Besides all these measure for saving Mumbai and other cities, India will also have to take up the path to cleaner and greener measures.

Rathin Roy, Managing Director (Research and Policy) at ODI, says that pursuing a cleaner, more resource-efficient path to development could help secure India’s prosperity and competitiveness in the long term. He says: "Lower-carbon options are more efficient and less polluting, producing immediate benefits such as cleaner air, greater energy security and rapid job creation.”