From unplanned construction to destruction of city’s many water bodies, Hyderabad has done everything wrong

Following the recent deluge, many have called for revisiting the planning of several of these affected localities.

“Everything was destroyed in a flash, in one night, as we stood helpless on rooftops.” There is a feeling of helplessness that masks the shock in the voice of woman, whose belongings have been wiped away by the devastating floods in Hyderabad. She is not alone, others too have suffered a similar fate.

Standing beside the debris of her destroyed home, a young woman shares her angst: “All our documents are lost. We had just registered the house after paying Rs 25,000. How can we sell the house without the documents? Will the government help?”

Similarly, a distressed mother, maintaining a straight face to control her emotions, recalls how the strong water currents gushing from the adjoining nullah broke the front door, flooded her house, and washed away her daughter through the back door into the nullah. “She was 17-year-old. Her name was Shahina,” says the mother, unable to gather her voice.

These voices are not from the past week when Hyderabad has been hit by its worst floods in recent times, but testimonials from victims of the August 2000 flash floods captured in a documentary aptly named “…And Nature Replied. A Statement on the Flooding of Hyderabad”.

As visuals from the documentary draw an eerie resemblance to present-day Hyderabad, its producer and city-based social activists Mazher Hussain, who is the executive director of COVA (confederation of voluntary organisations) Peace Network, uploaded the film on YouTube on October 16, 2020. “It is so unfortunate that today we have a situation similar to 20 years ago and what people told us back then is so relevant even today.” The film, co-produced by Kakarla Sajaya, discussed rapid urbanisation in Hyderabad, encroachments, the lack of respect for nature, and the plight of the victims of the disaster.

Cut to October 2020, Sajaya, after visiting the flood victims in Hyderabad’s Shaheen Nagar, one of the worst affected localities now, says over 500 houses are inundated even four days after the downpour of October 13, many houses damaged, and people complained of allergies and infections post floods. “These localities had been inundated in September after the adjoining Osmannagar lake breached following heavy rains. Water had entered several houses. Even before the residents could recover, they have lost their houses again,” she said.

Syed Sohail, a resident here, has been waiting for the local authorities to show up for four days. “We don’t have any help coming. There is no effort to pump out the water. Individuals and organisations are doing what they can by giving us drinking water and food. But there is nothing left in life for us,” he said on Saturday. Another resident, Imran, added: “Many people have gone to community halls and safer places. All we do here is to wait for help. Will authorities at least pump out the water from our homes? What are we supposed to do?”

On August 26, 2000, the India Meteorological Department’s Hyderabad observatory in Begumpet recorded a massive 24 cm of rainfall. The sudden high-intensity downpour had resulted in the breach of tanks and nullahs, leading to loss of lives while ravaging residential localities. Last week, reminding the city once again of the deluge of August 2000, the IMD’s observatory recorded 19.2 cm rainfall for October 13. The previous all-time highest rainfall recorded by IMD in October in Hyderabad was 9.8 cm.

The Telangana State Development Planning Society, with a network of 1044 automated weather stations (AWS) for the state, recorded the highest rainfall of 32.5 cm in Ghatkesar in adjoining Medchal Malkajgiri district and a 29 cm rainfall in Hayathnagar, part of Greater Hyderabad. About 309 of the 1044 AWS, according to TSDPS, recorded over 10cm rainfall that night. The sudden ‘heavy to very heavy rains’ was triggered by a deep depression in the Bay of Bengal that hit the Andhra Pradesh coast and moved towards Telangana while weakening into a depression. Hundreds of colonies across the city were inundated. The state government pegged the losses at Rs 5,000 crore and declared 50 casualties in the state. In Hyderabad, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation estimated that 35,309 families were affected in the flash floods of October 13. A loss of Rs 670 crore is arrived at.

A fresh bout of heavy rains on the evening of October 17 further inundated the already waterlogged localities, mostly inhabited by the poor and marginalised. As the bund of Gurram Cheruvu breached, several colonies were submerged in no time. The Corporation claims to have evacuated nearly 2500 persons from here.

The IMD’s director in-charge of Hyderabad, Dr. K Nagarathna suggested that water bodies were filled beyond their capacities and the disaster is man-made. Telangana had already received excess rainfall of 50 per cent during the south-west monsoon between June and October, filling these water bodies, and most localities suffered as lake bunds breached.

Rapid urbanisation is a bigger threat today than it was in 2000. “The problems are the same but the present-day situation is worse. A heavy spell of rainfall for five minutes is sufficient to inundate the city. Every time it floods, the government points its fingers at the poor for encroachment. Look at the mega housing ventures and corporate companies; they are all in catchment areas of our water bodies,” Dr Nagarathna explained.

Waterbodies are important, but ignored

Senior hydrogeologist BV Subba Rao said the failure to understand the functional aspects of a city’s water bodies and looking at them for ornamental and recreational purposes is as good as ‘placing a wreath on a dead body’.

If one respects and recognises these lakes as flood control structures, the entire city’s plan would have to be changed, he said, adding that the governments have seen past the environmental services of lakes for turning them into parks and recreational spots. Subba Rao had first flagged the issue in 1990 in his chapter on the Hyderabad floods for a publication on the status of the environment in Andhra Pradesh.

Following the recent deluge, many have called for revisiting the planning of several of these affected localities. “Many localities in Hyderabad were named after Bagh, Kunta(lake), Tank, Maidan, etc denoting hundreds of gardens, water bodies, and extensive open spaces that defined the landscape of the city. These are just names of localities now,” rues Hussain.

According to Subba Rao, the blame cannot be put entirely on city planners. “The city’s master plan does not have the hydrology map superimposed on it. In the master plan if you do not know where the lakes are located, town planners can get misled into sanctioning the housing,” he pointed out. “The master plan should be integrated with our natural drainage system, and also the network of stormwater drains and sewage drains. We don’t have a water infrastructure map incorporated in the master plan yet,” said Subba Rao.

Geographer and Executive Director of the Hyderabad Urban Lab (HUL) Foundation Dr Anant Mariganti notes that the story of urban flooding is more or less the same for most Indian cities because the pattern of accumulation of rainwater and its drainage has been conveniently forgotten in the last several decades.

The issue of urban flooding is often brushed aside by authorities as rains of such a humongous nature are not an everyday occurrence. “It is not about the four days of very heavy rain. It has caused a damage of Rs 5,000 crore. Much could have been done to avert it,” added Subba Rao.

Dr Mariganti is certain that the city’s infrastructure built a hundred years ago to tackle urban flooding is inadequate today because the city itself has grown into a different place qualitatively. Deepening or widening of nullahs is not going to work, he said.

SDMA has not met even once in six years

Meanwhile, Marri Shashidhar Reddy, the former vice-chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), wondered why there was not a single meeting of the State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) conducted in the last six years. As much as rehabilitation, reconstruction and recovery are important in a post-disaster phase, he said, prevention, mitigation and preparedness are vital in a pre-disaster phase, making the role of SDMA even more crucial.

Speaking of Hyderabad, he said the greater Hyderabad should have been delineated based on ridge boundaries that separate the watersheds. Hyderabad has 13 watersheds which form rivulets, streams, and nullahs and discharge rainwater ultimately into river Musi. “In Hyderabad, the surface runoff is 95 per cent. So the entire rains go into Musi. No one knows or talks about the ridge boundaries of these 13 watersheds. You need to plan a stormwater drainage system based on the watersheds and not according to administrative boundaries,” he said, adding: “All these guidelines remain merely on paper.”

As per the NDMA guidelines, he said, the delineated map of greater Hyderabad should be integrated with the Doppler weather radar product. “The radar gives you a 3 to 6 hour leak time. The ‘nowcasting’ (weather forecast for the upcoming few hours) can tell you how much rain can be expected and where. When rainfall is predicted based on watersheds, we can pinpoint areas that might face flooding.” Citing the NDMA guidelines, he added that automated rain gauges that can communicate rainfall on a real-time basis are required at every ward. These machines can intimate the administration if rainfall exceeds 10mm in 15 minutes, which could result in a flood.

Shashidhar Reddy also alleged widespread corruption in the annual exercise of pre-monsoon de-silting of the stormwater drainage network. “We had said that this exercise must be completed two months before the onset of monsoon. It is nothing but corruption which allows contractors to delay the exercise till the last minute and continue into the rainy season,” he alleged.

‘See floods as a political event’

The recent urban floods, according to environmentalist and political scientist Prof. K. Purushotham Reddy, should be seen as a political development in the run-up to upcoming elections to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. Not only has the government of the day and that of the past not taken climate resilience seriously, but they have also taken the path to further destruction of the environment, he said.

As an environmentalist, he said he would take up a public campaign, especially among students and youngsters, to make the environment a poll issue. “So far neither the GHMC nor the state government has considered climate resilience. We will work for the strengthening of the 74th constitutional amendment that mandates devolution of powers to urban local bodies in its true spirit,” he stated. “We appeal the citizens to take all these into consideration and reject all political parties so that a political alternative more committed to the environment will emerge.”

Adding to the need for strengthening local self-governance, city-based lake activist Dr. Lubna Sarwath alleged that the state has diluted the WALTA (Water, Land and Trees Act) authority. “There has not been a single meeting of the WALTA authority at State, District, or Mandal level in the last six years. It mandates for public participation in decision making. People would have raised the issues if the meeting were ever held,” she said.

She argued that residents of those localities would have come up with the solutions to their problems had the government conducted the ‘area sabha meetings’ and ‘ward committee meetings’ as mandated in the Constitution of India. “Not a single meeting is held until now. Encroachments would have been much less, and politicians and bureaucrats more accountable, had these bodies discussed their issues at their levels,” she said.

“It is nice to say I want all my tanks back. I will not get them back. Instead of being a strange romantic, we have to be pragmatic and take stock of what is irreversible about the city, and what can be reversed and what needs to be done for the future,” said Dr Mariganti. “It has to be done by a government institution and not consultants.”

Subba Rao, echoing similar views, added that much wonders can be done with minimum investment. “The NDMA has given us broad guidelines. We know our city, so we have to plan for ourselves. Let the government encourage the students to do internships and not engage consultants,” he said, adding “in the end, it calls for sincerity, transparency, and commitment from the political system.”

A public commission should take a complete assessment of the hydrological systems of Hyderabad and other cities, they said. “It should not be done as a study by an expert committee. It has to have politicians as well as technical experts. The HMDA (Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority) has that function available on paper. The Government should mandate the HMDA to make a complete inventory of the problems in the city. And come up with a solution that we can politically live with,” Dr. Mariganti concludes.

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