Urban resilience in a land of flood and drought

Contributor: Will Bugler

India has a tempestuous relationship with water. The seasonal monsoon winds drive dramatic changes to the country’s weather systems, blowing in wet weather from the south-west, or dry from the north-east. The rainfall brought by these weather systems does not fall uniformly across the country, with some areas suffering intense droughts, while others experience severe floods. The dualism of overabundance and scarcity of water presents huge challenges for the country’s growing urban population, whose health, homes and livelihoods are increasingly threatened by India’s water woes.

India’s urban population is expanding rapidly. Over the last twenty years, it has risen from 217 million to more than 377 million, and the pace of urbanisation shows no sign of abating. In fact, according to some, India may be on the brink of an ‘urban revolution’ that could mean that over 40 percent of its population – more than 600 million people – lives in cities by the 2030s.

Water issues affect India’s burgeoning cities in several ways. Surging demand for drinking, sanitation and industry, is putting pressure on scarce resources, while at the same time, the impact of severe flood events is felt most keenly by the poorest city dwellers, who often live in poor quality housing, and in low-lying areas. So what can be done to manage urban water resources in a land of floods and droughts?

In times of scarcity

Last year India suffered one of the most significant droughts in recent history. Soaring summer temperatures and the late arrival of monsoon rains left an estimated 330 million people with acute water shortages.

The government’s response was to transport millions of litres of water, hundreds of miles… by train. The 200-mile journey over the Deccan plateau, provided much-needed relief to the people of the drought-stricken city of Latur, in the western state of Maharashtra. Going to such lengths to move water, highlights one of the most challenging issues for urban water planning: the highly localised nature of rainfall in the Indian subcontinent.

This has given rise to ambitious mega-projects such as the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project, which is touted as the ‘world’s largest irrigation infrastructure project’. The ILR program entails constructing 15,000 km of new canals and around 3,000 dams and storage structures. It is hoped that this will provide more evenly distributed water resources across the country.

The Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project. Credit: Amy North. CC by 3.0

The US$180 billion project has its critics. In particular, they suggest that such large-scale change to ecosystems will have hosts of unintended consequences, and could create new conflicts over transboundary water usage. Many also say that the project does not account for climate change, which is likely to lead to unpredictable shifts in rainfall patterns across the country.

Prioritising ‘Integrated Water Management’ approaches that take into account the activities across entire river catchment areas will be important in order to manage India’s water resources effectively. This is something that has, up to now, been lacking.

In dry states such as Marathwada, for example, agriculture is dominated by crops such as sugarcane which require large quantities of water to sustain. Large farmers in the region are able to irrigate their crops, while smaller landholders are forced to rely on intermittent rainfall. Despite relatively low overall rates of irrigation, generous state subsidies on energy enable large-scale farmers to pump water from depleted groundwater stores.

As water demand from India’s cities grows, competition for the resource can also lead to tensions with other water users. In order to reduce such conflicts, it is important for cities to increase the availability of local water resources, and carefully plan and manage both supply and demand.

Local action

Work on urban water management by members of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) is helping to test new approaches in India’s cities. One such approach, that has been implemented in the city of Indore in Madhya Pradesh, is known as ‘Conjunctive Water Management’ (CWM).

Indore’s 2.5 million people rely almost entirely on surface water, which provides around 90 percent of the municipal supply. The source of that supply is the Narmada River, which is situated more than 70km from the city. The cost of pumping the water over such a large distance is high, which makes the utility cost expensive for much of the population. Water supply is also dependent on an electricity supply that is beset by frequent outages.

In order to improve the situation, the CWM approach was applied by the think tank Taru Leading Edge. The approach emphasises careful management of both demand side and supply side processes (see image below).

Conjunctive Water Management framework: Taru Leading Edge.

Applying the CWM framework, researchers found that the city’s centralised water supply system is incapable of meeting the demands of many of its citizens. Especially poorly served were the poorer, slum neighbourhoods, which relied on local groundwater sources. These were frequently contaminated, with E-coli and other bacteria.

Working with local communities and the municipal government, Taru was able to instigate innovative measures such as installing ‘reverse osmosis’ water purifiers in slum communities. These provided local populations with accessible water supplies that were free from contaminants, leading to significant health benefits.

At the city level a large, lake restoration project was also undertaken in order to increase the amount of local, groundwater resources available to the city.

Closing the floodgates

When it comes to water management in India, flood and drought are two sides of the same coin. Building resilience to flooding has become a priority for many cities in the country, after a series of damaging events in recent years. The floods that hit Chennai, in 2015 made international headlines, as they struck the city at the height of the Paris climate change conference. The floods claimed the lives of over 300 people and more than 2 million people were displaced in the Chennai’s home state of Tamil Nadu alone.

The city’s response to the floods required unprecedented cooperation between a network of emergency services, early responders, volunteers, government departments, businesses and NGOs. The response emphasised the importance of local governance networks for managing flood response. Physical flood defences can only go so far in protecting urban populations, and can often lead to unintended consequences, whereby flood protections in one part of the city, increase the vulnerability in another.

Flooding in Chennai, India. Credit: McKay Savage, CC by 2.0

In some cities, physical geography and climatic factors mean that flood prevention is not the most appropriate strategy to increase resilience. Instead, the emphasis has shifted to find ways to live with the floods better, reducing their impact on citizens. The Indian city of Surat is a prime example of this approach.

Surat, the 4th fastest growing city in the world, sits on the banks of the Tapi River which flows into the Arabian Sea. The sea lies just 16km from the city centre and, at high tides, laps at the city’s western boundary, flooding many of the settlements which are located along tidal creeks.

Surat is an important centre for trade in textiles, and is famous for its diamond industry, with over 90 percent of the world’s rough diamonds being polished by craftsmen in the city. Historically the city was also an important commercial centre and a large port. Protecting the city from flooding is also not a recent phenomenon. As far back as the mid 17th century, the construction of a protective wall around the city was begun. The barrier included gates that could be closed when there was a risk of flooding.

However, the efforts did not stop the city suffering regular floods. The city has records of floods going back to 1869, and on average the city flooded every two and a half years between 1869 and 1884. Since 1979 the city has experienced five large-scale flood events, and in 2006 a massive flood inundated over three-quarters of the city, killing as many as 500 people.

Flood risk mapping for Surat undertaken by Taru Leading Edge

The combination of river and coastal flooding has made it difficult to reduce the impact of flooding through hard, fixed infrastructure developments like flood barriers and walls. Instead, the city has turned to integrated systems such as developing an end-to-end early warning systemand improved information and data management, mapping of flood-risk areas and the regulation of construction in floodplains.

The combined cost of initiating the flood management strategies including vulnerability mapping, enhanced weather stations, early warning system and community programmes such as the Surat Climate Change Trust has been around US$500,000. The cost of the 2006 flood was estimated at US$4.5 billion.

Managing India’s water is a highly complex challenge. Whether it be flood or drought, water issues cut across social, economic and physical boundaries and therefore necessitate widespread cooperation from stakeholders in government, civil society organisations, the private sector and communities. Approaches to flood management that are highly compartmentalised or inflexible are unlikely to be successful. But with urban populations growing at breakneck pace, there cannot be any delay in taking action.

Further reading

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.