One of the biggest challenges that Mumbai has faced in recent times is the issue of water-logging after heavy rainfall. Following the deluge and standstill of 2005, there were a lot of plans and announcements made by the government, corporations and other institutions, but what has it converted into? We can all see the results today, as we face yet another breakdown. Let’s do a brief check of how things have progressed.
Promises and Preparedness:
Every year we hear promises from the BMC that they are “fully prepared”   for the monsoons this time around, and will be able to deal with it. They’ve installed pumps which may or may not work (linking), built bridges over areas that always flood  and even publicised the BRIMSTOWAD programme  which still remains incomplete.
Water and sanitation map showing pumps and STPs in Mumbai (2014). Source: www.loginmumbai.org
Ram Mandir Road Bridge over Oshiwara River. Source: Mumbai Paused
Why does our city flood anyway:
Mumbai is no new witness to floods, the city has been facing heavy monsoons from as far as memory can recall, but what makes the city flood like it does now?
Any habitation is supposed to make room for elemental flow, and while people construct their houses with ‘best Vaastu practices’, cities often forget the basic natural elements when it comes to planning. If we do not leave out channels for water to flow, it will start to fill and expand into the nearest available spaces.
— Riteish Deshmukh (@Riteishd) 30 August 2017
Condition of Mulund Station during the heavy rains. This is what happens when we block the natural drainage patterns.
Considering the situation of Mumbai, our rivers are choked with plastics, construction debris and are hardly desilted. These natural drainage channels, which have seen alterations in their natural course because of human encroachment (the Mithi river has been made to do C turn to accommodate the Mumbai airport), are then rendered useless. 
Mithi River flowing within concrete walls erected after 2005 floods near the airport. Image taken during the recce for our Mumbai Water Walks project.
The Mangroves and Natural Forests of Mumbai, which are under extreme threat from urbanisation and expansion, are the best natural defences from coastal erosion and flood situations. The mangroves as well as SGNP – Aarey Forests have extreme potential to absorb and channelize excess rainfall into the ground, thereby also increasing the city’s underground water potential. But if the Maharashtra government has it’s way, they will soon hack into the Aarey forests and uproot 2298 trees to build a workshop for the metro.  The Aarey forest is the most important catchment area of the Mithi river. If we really want to make our city more resilient to climate events, we need to resist this move and save our saviours.
Illustration from Slogan Murugan’s ‘Mumbai Friday Release’ series with illustrator Amol Prabhakar Urankar.
A ban on plastics was introduced by the government soon after the 2005 floods, realising the massive issues of clogging and ocean waste being created. Every now and then the sea comes and gives us back our share of the waste, something that individual groups have been doing a remarkable job at cleaning up, but is that what we want to keep on doing? The ban though has failed to curb the use of plastics, and we the people are to be blamed as much as the government in this case. It is our equal duty to change our habits to keep our city free from plastic waste.
Plastics that clog our drains, visible on the streets after the rainwaters receded. Image by Priyans Murarka.
Documenting the Mithi:
We set out to get visual proof of the corporation’s work along the most oft talked about river – The Mithi. Pictures were taken from fixed points near the Saki Naka junction, over the course of a few months. We observed significant changes along the river and here are some of the findings.
Water hyacinth: A fast growing plant that you can see covering the entire stretch of the river. It is known to affect water flow, blocks sunlight affecting the aquatic species, and starves the water of oxygen. Even though hyacinth is sometimes used to absorb heavy elements from polluted water, we’re not sure if that was the reason they thrived here. It was eventually cleared by the BMC by 06th June 2017, but if you see in the images from 17th June, the hyacinth is not cleared downstream from our location (possibly because it was out of direct view).
The water normally is often grayish black and you’d want to pass the river as quickly as you possibly can, the stench from the river in summer months is foul enough to make your stomach turn. When it rains: All the muddy water from various streams comes along and joins the river. I travel along this route daily, and have never seen machines desilt the river. As you can see, the water levels on 30th August 2017 are significantly higher than the previous times it has rained. The water easily seeps into the slums which are along the edge of the river.
I’ve noticed a building being constructed just along the bank of the river, and speculate that the debris dumped on the river bed is actually a makeshift access road for tractors to dump mud / waste in the river. Convenient enough?
Journalist Pallavi Prasad from The Quint had done a walk along the Mithi some months ago [16 May 2017], and live streamed her entire experience. It says a lot when adequate action was not taken even after someone directly pointed it out to the authorities. Watch her documentation here:
— Pallavi Prasad (@pallaviprsd) May 17, 2017
Disaster Management - Official and Civic Responses
250mm of rain in a day in 2017 as compared to over 900mm in a day in 2005, and we’re in a similar standstill. Where is the progress, and accountability? With tall claims made by different departments, including IIT Bombay’s climate cell  about mapping the Mumbai floods, it is shocking that the city was not warned in advance. All of this seems strange when one sees Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s annual budgets of INR 37,000 crores in 2016-2017 and 25,000 crores in 2017-2018 , but not so much when the government is busy building a statue in the middle of the sea by spending INR 3,600 crores of public money.  Some TV journalists pointed out that the emergency helpline numbers floated by the government weren’t built to handle capacity, only returning busy responses when they tried it on live TV. 
Forget substantial development, where is the incremental development we can expect from just growing as a community? And what actions are being taken by the community itself? Self imposed ban of plastic bags? Non-littering on the road? All the Mumbaikars by now realise that plastic clogs the drains, and forms a significant portion of 8000 metric tons of daily solid waste – but will we change our daily behaviour? 
Condition of Versova beach after the heavy rains and before the citizen clean up drive. Source: https://twitter.com/VersovaBeach
We saw tremendous responses from the Navy that set up a canteen near CST, traffic police that has been on their feet during the floods and Mumbai Police that has been very active both online and offline in sharing resources.
And here in Mumbai,a friend stuck in a car to the airport for 5 hrs told me that slumdwellers came out to serve stranded people tea&biscuits https://t.co/tzhGobH28Q
— anand mahindra (@anandmahindra) August 30, 2017
Ganpati mandals, Gurudwaras, Temples, Mosques and Churches opened for everyone. Locals, slum dwellers provided tea and biscuits to those in need. Even startups like Ola, Oyo and Treebo jumped in, sharing resources for the community.
The twitter community came together in big numbers and quickly set up #RainHosts – www.mumbairains.org, with people opening up their homes, offices, coffee shops and restaurants to the relief of many in search of shelter. The online movement had more than 200 direct addresses for help and 5000 support tweets within a day.
— Jay (@CruciFire) 29 August 2017
Accountability and the Path Ahead
What does the future hold? Administration should ideally share the specific details of what is being done, how much is already done, what is needed, what is it going to cost, who is going to do it, and the timelines. There should also be a penalty system for non-performance. The citizens should keep a tab on the status of most flood prone areas in their locality, push the local officials to get it ready for the upcoming monsoon. This is a problem that could be solved by active participation of the community.
If you want to get involved, here’s a couple of ways to do it:
Log on to – www.mumbai.indiaspend.org – find out about the many projects + ongoing tasks around you, their timelines, budgets and responsible parties . Follow up with your elected representatives – ward counsellor, MLA and MP. Make sure they know that you’re tracking their work, and then vote responsibly in the next elections.
At Veditum, one of our projects – City Water Walks – is an attempt at documenting urban commons. Through regular documentation, we have been able to create this report with proper evidence and introduce accountability at some level.
The Mithi near BKC, July 2016 – City Water Walks Mumbai Recce trip.
You can also become a contributor and help expand this evidence base. Choose a spot in the city that is convenient for you to access on a weekly basis – a river bank, a lake view sight, a pond or any other public space that is subject to dynamic changes. Figure out what is going on at your chosen spot, take pictures of the subject every week (or the frequency that you decide upon) and send them to email@example.com with GPS location and a short description. We will help put together the data collected by you and others like you, and share this through a platform that we’re currently building for open access to such data.
Your little efforts can help create a more accountable public system, which will hopefully be better prepared to tackle such situations in future. In the face of global climate change, this exercise becomes all the more important as it helps us understand how our coastal city is responding to this phenomena.