Mumbai Floods: Another wake-up call

Aug 2005 | Comments Off on Mumbai Floods: Another wake-up call

The Mumbai Disaster Management Plan is an exhaustive document, giving a profile of the city, identifying hazards, laying down procedures for disaster response down to ward levels, and also covering aspects of disaster preparedness and mitigation. Yet, it all came to a naught on 26 July 2005.

Maharashtra was the first state in the country to have a disaster management plan. It all started with the Latur Earthquake of 1993. As a part of response programme, the Maharashtra Emergency Earthquake Rehabilitation Project (MEERP) was launched the same year. This later led to the exercise of preparing a State Disaster Management Plan. The World Bank, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) as well as several bilateral donor agencies supported the initiative.

The framework for disaster management was multi-dimensional. The strategies were mainly based on three intervention areas: communication network, state disaster management plan, and district and local disaster management plans. A network of telecommunication and information systems was set up, consisting of an Emergency Operations Centre (Central Control Room) at the Secretariat at Mumbai, a standby Control Room at the Centre for Disaster Management at YASHDA, Pune, Control Rooms at each of the six divisional headquarters, and District Control Rooms at each district collectorate. This network is connected with VSAT telecommunication facilities for data, voice and information exchange and video-conferencing. In a second level of communication network all local nodes are linked together through a VHF wireless network. State-of-theart facilities like wireless base stations, mobile sets and radio communication units are provided to the subdivisional officers to ensure contact with Control Room at all times.

As a part of the multi-hazard response plans, the Maharashtra Remote Sensing Applications Centre (MRSAC), Nagpur, prepared maps with details for developing a comprehensive Disaster Management Information System (DMIS). A Geographic Information System (GIS) interface operates as a front-end to a disaster management database, providing it flexibility to respond to user queries regarding location specific details. The thematic data on natural systems includes disaster geomorphology, geophysical data such as slopes, soils, geology, land use, land cover, drainage network, surface reservoirs, and data on climate like rainfall pattern, temperature, wind, humidity etc. The support data consists of administrative setup, socio-economic and demographic profi le of the population, resources, irrigation, health facilities, educational infrastructure, animal husbandry, agriculture, power, infrastructure, industry, fisheries, public distribution system, tourism, etc. All the locations in the state have been assessed for the availability of various facilities listed above and their infrastructure capabilities have been mapped and included in the database to permit querying.

Maharashtra thus became the first state to prepare a comprehensive State Disaster Management Plan and also undertake risk assessment and vulnerability analysis of the state. A separate volume on Standard Operating Procedures details the manuals for various departments to be activated during an emergency. This integrated facility of multi-hazard response plans, communication network and GIS is believed to have enhanced the level of preparedness of the administration and also improved the capability of the government machinery to respond to disasters more effectively.

As part of the initiative, an exhaustive disaster management plan was also prepared specifi cally for Mumbai. This was the first urban disaster management plan in the country. Mumbai, being the commercial capital of India, has a strategic importance for the country. Located on the western coast across an island formation, it is a multi-hazard prone city. Mumbai is also the capital of the state of Maharashtra, and got the benefi t of the disaster management planning exercise going on in the state. That is how it overtook even the national capital, Delhi, in getting a disaster management plan for itself.

The Mumbai Disaster Management Plan is an exhaustive document, giving a profi le of the city, identifying hazards, laying down procedures for disaster response down to ward levels, and also covering aspects of disaster preparedness and mitigation. It covers floods, earthquakes, landslides, road accidents, industrial and chemical accidents and cyclones. It specifies the setting up of committees and control rooms. The plan is available for viewing on the website of the Government of Maharashtra. There have also been international seminars on the Mumbai Disaster Management Plan, applauding its comprehensiveness.

Yet, it all came to a naught on 26 July 2005. The rain gods got a little over-liberal to Mumbai and showered an unprecedented 944 mm of rain within a span of twentyfour hours. The bustling city of thirteen million population simply drowned. The rain continued for the next few days, leading to continued fl ooding and hampered rescue and relief efforts. Over 1,000 died in the region, a majority of them in and around Mumbai. Many died from secondary impacts such as mudslides, electrocution, wall collapses, and car submergence. Politicians blamed the disaster on the unusually heavy rain, but there is no denying the fact that this is the kind of situations a disaster management plan is supposed to take care of, which it couldn’t. All the hype about the Mumbai Disaster Management Plan would have got washed down the drain, but for the fact that all drains in Mumbai were choked that day! The blame game was still going on when Mumbai was hit by an outbreak of water borne diseases resulting from the floods. Within two and a half weeks, over fifty had died of such diseases while 8,000 were reported ill in Mumbai and 100,000 in the state.

What really went wrong?

Perhaps the answer is not easy to arrive at. Surely a number of things went wrong; they have been going wrong for years, and are going wrong all over the country. Let us look at two of the major follies: top heavy disaster management plans, and a missing link between development planning and disaster management.

The Disaster Management Plan: Sitting in an ivory tower

Effective plans are those that get built from the people up, not from the government down. Our disaster management plans talk of who the decision makers are, and what technologies are at their disposal. They do not mention where the people are, what makes them vulnerable, and how they can play a part in reducing their levels of risk.

Urban Development and Civic Management: Ancient Greek for disaster managers

Today’s disaster manager wants to talk about emergency response, search and rescue, sniffer dogs, medical response teams, satellite phones and red jackets. Who wants to discuss drains and taps? That is boring stuff that municipalities mess with. The lessons of linking disasters with development have been around for years in textbooks, but they haven’t gone home. Unless population distributions are planned in accordance with carrying capacities of settlements, civic systems planned in accordance with worst scenario demands, and services maintained diligently, the simple process of urban management will turn into a nightmarish disaster whenever any out-of-the-ordinary event dislodges its precarious balance.

Hasn’t it happened before?

Prafulla Marpakwar in his article `Mumbai’s Disaster of a Management Plan’, which was published in the Indian Express dated 13 July 2000, gives a graphic account of how the city came to a standstill on the previous day due to heavy rains. He blasted the disaster management plan, saying “A quick look at the manner in which the Congress-led Democratic Front dealt with the crisis following heavy rains in the metropolis as well as several parts of the state leads one to the conclusion that the disaster management plan has remained on paper and there was lack of coordination between government agencies”. A million people had stayed stranded in their offices, railway stations, bus stands and other places for over twentyfour hours. It is evident that the lesson was not learnt. Five years later it has happened again, with greater ferocity, and our paper tiger plan has again proved useless.

Mainstream Disaster Management

The answer to Mumbai’s woes, and those of many cities like it, lies in mainstreaming disaster management in development planning. The environment needs to be given some space in our cities. Politicians need to be stopped from converting green buffers into paved real estate that reduces ground percolation and increases surface runoff. Landuse plans, network and service plans, transport plans and civic infrastructure management plans, all need to take into account the critical factors of environmental carrying capacities of cities, and incorporate risk reduction measures as well as emergency response mechanisms. Unless this is done, we will continue writing and rewriting obituaries of our disaster management plans.


Shveta Mathur

Programme Coordinator, Centre for Urban and
Regional Excellence, New Delhi

Anshu Sharma

Director, SEEDS, New Delhi
anshu@seedsindia. org
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