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“The city was battered by the heaviest rainfall recorded … , snapping communication and power lines, closing airports, and marooning hundreds of thousands. Civic and public transport services collapsed and 5,000 army troops had to be deployed. … Food packets had to be air-dropped from helicopters, perhaps for the first time in a metro [metropolitan area].”

“The result was devastation on a scale unknown even to this monsoon-scarred city …

“A week after the deluge that brought this modern city to a complete standstill, everyone you meet has a story to tell—of horror and of humanity, of determination and of despair. Even the gods could not have stopped the rain, but could the Government have helped just a little? Two days after the floods and destruction, the Government was absent. It had declared a two-day holiday for the State and seemed to have gone on vacation too. And if it had a disaster management plan, it must have been safely locked up.”

“There are now thousands of families without a sheaf of paper to prove their identities … floods, like any other disaster, impact hard on the poorest of the poor. …
“The roads are slowly coming out of their river disguise. As the water leaves, the underbelly of the city is exposed. It just may be the time to rethink, rebuild … time for a rebirth.”

New Orleans? Hurricane Katrina? These words could very well have been from the American media. However, they are excerpts from India Today (Aug. 8, 2005), The Hindu (Aug. 7, 2005), and Outlook (Aug. 15, 2005) respectively. They refer not to New Orleans, but to Mumbai and the unprecedented monsoon rains that began in the afternoon of July 26, 2005.

Within a 24-hour period, nearly a meter (37.1 inches) of rain fell, setting a new world record. The deluge battered not only Mumbai, but a 600-mile swath of the west coast of India from Surat in the north to the headwaters of the Kaveri river in the south. In the ensuing days and weeks, all rivers flowing down from the Western Ghats swelled beyond flood stage. With all reservoirs also filled beyond capacity, the crest gates had to be fully opened, inundating downstream towns and villages. The Krishna river devoured a road bridge (photo below) 250 miles south of Mumbai. A tributary of the Kaveri river inundated a village (photo above) on the outskirts of Mysore, 528 miles south of Mumbai.

The deluge adversely affected some 100 million people in four states: Maharashtra, Gujarat, Goa, and Karnataka. The official death toll directly due to rains was over 1,000, and the count of subsequent deaths due to water-borne diseases was around 300, although official figures tend to underestimate the impact on residents of unauthorized settlements. The total losses to India’s economy amount to over Rs. 200 billion ($4.38 billion). The percentage loss to India’s economy (0.7 percent) is comparable to the estimated percentage loss due to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to the U.S. economy. In India the affected area and population was much larger; in the United States the long-term damage to housing and infrastructure was greater. On balance, these were disasters of similar orders of magnitude.

To be sure, there were several fundamental differences between the flood disasters in Mumbai and New Orleans. The loss of life in New Orleans was increased by the stagnant floodwaters that trapped people in their homes for days and weeks without drinking water and food. Those same foul waters rotted the wood-framed houses in New Orleans, while in Mumbai all housing except transient shacks were built of brick and concrete and barring some exceptions floodwaters stay anywhere for more than a few days. Though requiring a monstrous clean-up and disinfection effort, most Mumbai housing was habitable within a week.

Yet, many residents still could not return to their homes because the interior damage was so extensive. Thousands of residents of unauthorized hillside settlements lost their homes to landslides. Residents of ground-floor housing and low-lying unauthorized settlements had much of their movable possessions washed out to sea. The millions of tons of debris and trash that had been flushed out by the raging floodwaters were later washed back on shore by ocean waves. Three weeks after the flood, the south end of Juhu Beach remained covered with a thick blanket of plastic, paper, wood, and debris (photo above). Storm drains remained choked with non-biodegradable plastic bags (photo on the left).

The long-term problems in both Mumbai and New Orleans, however, bear some striking similarities. Both cities are vital metropolitan centers, strategic ports, and thriving tourist destinations. In both, all available land has been fully developed with roads and buildings. However, the maps of both cities from a hundred or more years ago reveal that much of the land around the early settlements was low-lying swamp—mangrove swamps in Mumbai and cypress swamps in New Orleans. The settlements of those times were built on areas of solid ground above sea level.

A map of New Orleans on May 3, 1849 (see next page) shows, in addition to the then-uninhabitable cypress swamps, a swath of land inundated by floodwaters up to six feet deep that included a built-up sector adjacent to the French Quarter. All other settlements were built within 10 blocks of the Mississippi river—the only land above sea level. However, as the vast hinterlands of the Louisiana Purchase were settled, shipping on the Mississippi river boomed, and New Orleans became an increasingly important transshipment point between river barges and ocean-going freighters. In the later decades of the 19th century, the population pressure in New Orleans necessitated clearing the cypress swamps to make way for suburban expansion into lands that lay below sea level. The resulting modern city of New Orleans was built on lands of which some 80 percent are below sea level. Thus, when Hurricane Katrina breached the levees, 80 percent of the city was submerged.

A map of Mumbai in 1909 (see last page) shows the original city of Mumbai as a true island, surrounded on all sides by water. This means that the Mithi river, whose watershed is nearly the entire central region of the large island to the north, once flowed without restriction into the ocean waters of Mahim Bay and Mumbai Harbour before ever touching Mumbai Island. Although, unlike New Orleans, no part of modern Mumbai lies below sea level, large areas in what is now Matunga East and Dadar East were once salt pans and mangrove swamps—essentially at sea level. Low-lying southern parts of Chembur were also once mangrove swamps.

As Mumbai developed into India’s premier financial and industrial center, its population boomed from 3.5 million in 1955 to over 18 million today. The seawater channel that once separated Mumbai Island from Chembur to the northeast has now been largely filled in by development encroachments to the extent that the channel has been reduced to a mere creek flowing through the middle of a new mangrove swamp arising from silt accumulation. Similarly, the western part of the channel has been filled in by development encroachment on what little is left of the Mithi river. Thus, when a meter of rain fell in a 24-hour period during July 26-27, the floodwaters in Chembur and the entire central region of the large island—home to Mumbai’s burgeoning suburbs—had no place to go. Only a small fraction of the watershed inflow could flow out to sea through the clogged Mithi river. The rest filled the streets and inundated entire districts of the city.

Global warming has begun to destabilize the world’s weather. On top of that, in the summer of 2005, nature reclaimed the swamps and rivers that human settlements had previously taken from nature without consideration of the long-term consequences. In New Orleans, had the low-lying cypress swamps been filled in to raise the land above sea level before construction, the disaster of August 2005 would have been vastly more manageable. In Mumbai, had encroachments on the Mithi river and the seawater channel to Mumbai Harbour been prevented, and had the city’s storm-drain system been progressively upgraded to meet the surging demands of a burgeoning population, the floodwaters would have drained out to sea as the rain was falling. The natural disasters were, in fact, made worse by acts of man. They were in some measure “unnatural” disasters.

The failure of the governmental authorities to take corrective measures in the face of known flood risks, the failure to provide the necessary transportation to implement mandatory evacuations of residents, and the failure to mobilize civilian and paramilitary relief forces and supplies prior to the impending storms were common features of both disasters. In both cases, it was admitted that “there was plenty of blame to go around.” In both cases, the central, state, and local governments were sitting on their hands when it came to addressing the socio-economic and disaster preparedness needs of the poor, who were hardest hit in both cities. In Mumbai, the issue of class came to the fore as many of the 4 to 5 million migrant workers living in unauthorized settlements lost their life possessions. In New Orleans, the issue of race (and, by implication, class) resurfaced as poor blacks living in the low-lying slums bore the brunt of the damage and suffering. As the summer storms passed on, relief money belatedly started to flow in large amounts, but more for the purpose of recovering lost political capital before the next elections than for solving the underlying infrastructural, ecological, and socio-economic problems.

Sharat G. Lin writes on the global political economy, India, and the Middle East. He was in India during the record deluge and witnessed its aftermath in Mumbai.