Thursday, July 09, 2009

Mumbai Braces for Floods From Highest Monsoon Tide Since 1982

For two decades, Kanti Gada, a decorative wood seller in south Mumbai, sent a worker to unclog the street drain outside his shop during the monsoon.

"My shop gets flooded with two feet of dirty water once every monsoon and I lose up to 20,000 rupees" ($416), said Gada, president of Grant Road Retail Traders Association. "A walk through that water will guarantee you'll get a disease."

This year's monsoon has an added peril for Mumbai's century-old sewers. On July 24, the rain may combine with the highest tide in 27 years, backing up drains in a city that's largely built on reclaimed land.

The combination will test a half-completed program to widen drains and install pumps started in 2007 after floods killed more then 700 people and closed the exchanges, businesses and airport. The city had rejected an earlier drainage proposal in the 1990s on the grounds of cost.

"For India to take its growth to a higher trajectory it needs to spend a lot more on upgrading urban infrastructure, especially the financial capital of Mumbai," said Shubhada Rao, chief economist at YES Bank Ltd. in the city. "There have been far too many delays."

Mumbai and its suburbs are home to 18 million people, India's two main stock exchanges and the nation's biggest trading centers for bullion, diamonds and commodities. With 27,348 people per square kilometer, it's the world's fifth most populous metropolis, according to a London School of Economics study.

More Funds

On July 6, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said he is adding 3 billion rupees to the 2 billion already provided this year to hasten completion of the four-year drainage project.

The tide at Mumbai could surge 5.05 meters on July 24, compared with an average 4 meters, said Vilas Vaidya, chief officer at the city's disaster management department. The authority considers any tide higher than 4.5 meters as dangerous.

"We need to worry only if the high tide combines with heavy rains," R.A. Rajeev, additional municipal commissioner said on the phone. "Water stagnation could disrupt traffic."

Memories of the flood in 2005 are fresh in the minds of Mumbaikars. On July 26 that year, wealth manager Amitava Neogi got a call from his 8-year-old daughter at 10 p.m., begging him to come home. He left his office in south Mumbai to drive 30 kilometers through monsoon rains. It took him 20 hours.

"There is no way I am going to do it again," said Neogi, whose car got stuck halfway home in a torrent of water. "It's best to stay put at a safe place."

On July 26-27, 2005, the city got a record 944mm of rain in 24 hours, or almost half its average annual rainfall.

New Pumps

Kishore Gajbhiye, additional commissioner at Municipal Corp. of Greater Mumbai, which oversees the drains, said the 20 billion rupee drainage program should prevent flooding this year.

"We have taken several measures to de-silt and widen drains," he said in a phone interview. "We have also set up pumps at 211 locations to reduce water-logging. We have told people to be careful in the week of July 20."

The city's trains and roads struggle to transport its 9 million commuters even on a normal week during the four-month rainy season. As much as 70 percent of the city's annual 2 meters of rain falls in July and August. The July 24 tide is expected to be the highest during the monsoon since the 5.09 meters reached on July 21, 1982, according to Survey of India.

Century Old

The upgrading project, "Brimstowad," was proposed in 1993 and is due to be completed by 2011, said Rajeev. There are 440 kilometers of drains in the old part of the city, most of which are a century old, and another 2,000 kilometers in the suburbs.

Land reclamation and development in the center and north has removed natural drainage and mangrove, exacerbating flooding, according to a study by Kapil Gupta, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, in Mumbai.

The Mithi River, fed from a lake that supplies drinking water, is today no more than an open drain carrying waste and sewage along its 15 kilometers. Authorities are de-silting the river after encroachment from slums, the airport and the new upscale offices of the Bandra-Kurla business district.

"The government has created this glitzy office complex by eating into the river's banks," said Sabir Khan, 59, a fruit seller, who's seen the Mithi narrow each year over 25 monsoons. In 2005, the Mithi overflowed, flooding the airport.

Some companies told workers to take precautions. Tata Motors Ltd., which put up stranded employees at its hotels in 2005, gives employees the option to go home early if the weather is deteriorating, said spokesman Debasis Ray. The U.S. consulate told its citizens to be watchful of missing drain-covers.

"People have become super-cautious," said Sheik Dawood, 53, an assistant general manager with ICICI Bank Ltd. "The administration has failed."

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