Mumbai Floods: Balancing the needs for Development and Climate Change

Sanjana Krishnan*

Mumbai rains have almost always been accompanied by flooding in several parts of the city. While it is a yearly phenomenon, and an intuitively known and well-researched fact that the poor are more vulnerable and susceptible to the risks of climate change, this article tries to answer two questions. Firstly, it tries to quantify the risk and find out how disproportional the risk is. And secondly, how much of this risk is because of climate change?

To assess how prone land in Mumbai is to the risk of flooding, and to answer who occupies that land, the major land use classification affected in the flood hotspots were analysed. The map of the existing land use from the DP was overlaid on the flooding hot spots map and the land use in risk of flooding was determined.  

Slums are not uniformly distributed across the city area — 41.85%, over 5 million people (5,207,700) live in slums along water creeks, hill slopes (risk of landslides), on the periphery of forests, low lying flood prone areas and along railway lines. A lot of these areas have no storm water drains (outlets to nallahs), or flood walls. Overlaying the map of flood affected areas and slum settlements, for different parts of the city, we can observe that almost every slum settlement lies in a flood prone area or in its 1000m buffer. There are very few slums in the unaffected areas. This is reflected in the maps below.

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 Vulnerable settlement and Flooding risk (1): Ward G/N, F/N, H/W, H/E,L,M/E,M/W

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Vulnerable settlements and flooding risk (2): Ward K/W, P/N, P/S, S, T

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For the island city, all the different land use in the 200m buffer around 72 flood hotspots was extracted. On QGIS, data about the risk level was entered in the attribute table. The major land use in the overlapping region was identified. By measuring the area affected, it was found that though slums occupy just 2.92 and cover just about 16% of the total amount of residential land use, its share is almost 50% of the affected residential area (Occupies just 3.7% of total land, but is30% of the total affected land). This shows how risk disproportionately affects the people living in the slums.

Land Use at risk

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The RDDP makes all its estimates and plans based on the demography, socio-economic status and amenities required for its residents and the economy and infrastructure of the city. It situates itself within the realities of the city, which are mainly, but not limited to, dealing with an almost entirely built city, with large amenity deficits created by past non-implementation, extremely high land costs and the municipal corporations limited ability to fund the DP. However, there are several shortcomings when it comes to how climate adaptation is thought about in the city.


Climate change considerations in city development plans are seldom addressed under the head of climate change, rather they are thought of as, and even confused with-

  1. Environmental issues, pollution  
  2. Issues arising from the lack of development
  3. Disaster management issues

Climate Change in the present context is not the most pressing problem that our cities face. Given the poverty, lack of housing, unemployment, inequitable distribution of resources and services, poor health care and education, environmental issues, intolerance etc. it is probably not even in the top 10 problems.

The issue of dealing with the risks of climate change becomes easier and more straightforward in cities of developed countries, where most of the everyday governance problems have been solved. Efficiency is good even for developing cities of course, but with huge socio-economic inequalities in consumption, the agenda of reducing emissions treads dangerously close to suggesting stifling consumption or limiting emissions at current levels, even when basic consumption levels have not been reached.

But having said that, one cannot ignore the climate change needs of the city, and sideline the actions that need to be taken in the present to adapt to and mitigate future risks. Various studies, including this one, has shown that poor communities and groups are more susceptible to the risks of climate change, and the vulnerability is a result of their socio-economic status. To take climate action, there needs to be a weighted balance between the development needs of the present and the climate needs of the future.  

There are always human factors that further aggravate the risks that climate change pose. Every year in Mumbai, several low-lying areas flood because construction in cities happen on floodplains despite knowing the dangers. Pipes and drains built a hundred years ago are unable to hold volumes discharged by present cities. Concretisation prevents percolation of water to the ground. The big problem of houses being built on flood plains in all cities despite the danger of natural flooding exists. Factors of overuse of plastic clogging gutters and a lot more of human made mistakes that are the exacerbate the problem more than the rainfall. It is important to remember that several problems are not due to the lack of adaptation, but due to the lack of governance and development.

Similarly, several authors have conflated the vulnerabilities of communities with the broader umbrella of climate risk to talk about climate vulnerable communities, community centred climate adaptation, and community level climate change vulnerability, and suggest strategies to safeguard these communities from the risks of climate change. Very often, the term ‘climate smart development’ is used to describe what needs to be done for climate change in a developing country, but is in fact just the basic development needed.

The findings of this study also prove that vulnerable settlements face a disproportionate climate risk, but do not tell that they are at risk due to the lack of adaptation (alone). While adaptation risk is faced by any and every person occupying the land at risk, the reason for the additional risk faced by vulnerable groups is because of the lack of development. The study stresses that this difference should be recognised, and that it be dealt with differently.

They must be kept separately and dealt with differently. Why?

Because when adaptation is confused with issues and mistakes humans make, the adaptive strategies are full of recommendations to correct this. Adaptation then gets reduced to dealing with government inefficiencies, building citizen consciousness and providing sturdy infrastructure

Similarly, by confusing it with environmental issues like the destruction of mangroves or pollution, we may end up making the local environment more green and clean, but that is not the root of the climate problem and does nothing to deal with climate problem.

While all of this is extremely vital, they are not climate change adaptive measures, they are the basics needs for development. Adaptation is essentially a spatial concept, and the measures needed for adaptation is something more than this. The measures undertaken for solving issue of development, governance and the environment will not be sufficient to tackle the demands climate risk place on us.

* Sanjana Krishnan completed her Masters from the Centre for Urban Policy and Governance in 2017, and currently works for a data driven policy consulting firm, CPC Analytics. She won the best MA dissertation prize (2015-2017). The above piece is an edited excerpt from her dissertation, reproduced here in relation to the incessant flooding Mumbai has faced this monsoon. Student dissertations are a core element of the Urban Policy and Governance course where students get to carry out in depth research on current topics drawing from the cross cutting thematics and interdisciplinary course content. To know more click here.


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