For residents of Hyderabad, September usually meant caution as the month brought unusually heavy rains. The Great Musi Floods of 1908 that impacted most of Hyderabad was caused by an unprecedented downpour on September 28 that year and each year September has been the time for caution.

This year, however, it is October that saw an extreme weather event that will be etched in the memories of the people. Sudden spells of heavy downpour, cloud bursts and flash floods over a week and especially on the intervening night of October 13 and October 14, exposed the fragile and inefficient urban infrastructure of the capital of Telangana.

Some experts claim that it is a clear case of the impact of climate change causing extreme weather events. Others point out that it is an example of bad planning, the encroachment of lakes and poor urban infrastructure and preparedness. Hyderabad lost 33 lives, nearly 40,000 families got badly impacted and suffered a property loss of Rs 670 crores as per official estimates.

Hyderabad of October, Chennai of December 2015 and Mumbai of July 2005 are definite cases of extreme events. They are wake up calls for urban planners to firm up strategies and implement measures to minimise the damages of such events, whose occurrence could only increase in future, say experts.

Annual average fatalities in India due to climate hazards are about 3660, which is the second highest in the world. The vulnerability of southern cities to urban flooding seems higher. Extreme rainfall events occurred in Hyderabad in 2016, 2010 and 2000. Kerala was swamped by floods in 2018 and Chennai battered in 2015.

A record rainfall

According to a recent study by the Centre for Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences of the University of Hyderabad, increasing urbanisation in Telangana and Tamil Nadu is likely to enhance the rainfall during heavy rainfall events by 20% to 25%. The study by Karumuri Ashok and Boyaj of UoH was done in collaboration with Ibrahim Hoteit and Hari Prasad Dasari of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia.

The study used land use land cover imagery from the Indian Space Research Organisation and conducted a dozen simulated, heavy rainfall events over the three southern states. The changes in land use land cover led to higher surface temperatures and a deeper and moist boundary layer. This, in turn, caused a relatively higher convective available potential energy and, consequently, heavier rainfall. The precipitation levels during heavy rainfall events have significantly increased from 2000 to 2017. Their findings were reported in the Quarterly Journal of Royal Meteorological Society on May 18.

Incidentally, Hyderabad celebrated its 429th foundation day on October 7 and October 8. Even before the celebrations, subdued due to the pandemic, dark, rain-bearing clouds converged over the city because of a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. Consequently, on October 13 and October 14, the tri-city – Hyderabad, Secunderabad and Cyberabad – an extent of 650 sq km, got battered with all-time record rainfall of 29.8 cms in 24 hours. The August 2000 downpour was recorded at 24 cm. For the record, the single-day highest rainfall record in the state of Telangana is 35.5 cms in October 1983 in Nizamabad.

“The unusually heavy rainfall was due to two reasons,” said B Raja Rao, of India Meteorological Department, Hyderabad. “The deep depression in the Bay of Bengal that moved onto the land in Hyderabad. The second was the rain-bearing clouds of the withdrawing Southwest monsoon also pouring out.”

People in large parts of Hyderabad woke up to water everywhere and many lives thrown out of gear. Several low lying localities were deluged in the water from rains and overflowing water bodies.

Roads and houses at Hafeez Baba Nagar in Hyderabad submerged in water due to heavy rain. Photo credit: Special arrangement

The city along a river

Hyderabad was built along the river Musi, one of the tributaries of river Krishna. The city was spread over 55 sq km to 60 sq km during the 1908 floods. Learning lessons from the natural disaster, the Nizam sought the help of the renowned engineer Sir Mokhshagundem Visweswarayya for long term flood protection. He designed an underground drainage system, two balancing reservoirs, Himayathsagar and Osmansagar and a sewage treatment plant. The Hussainsagar, which links the twin cities too came up around that time.

Post Independence, with its multiple advantages, Hyderabad grew rapidly as the home for public sector organisations, emerged as the place for bulk pharmaceutical drugs and home to many national research institutes as well. Post economic liberalisation in the 1990s, the neo rich, farmer turned industrial entrepreneurs from coastal Andhra Pradesh, shored up city’s land as a huge, desirable asset, propelling a real estate boom. The inflow of foreign direct investment and coming in of global IT majors such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, Infosys and e-commerce giants such as Amazon, Walmart to IKEA have transformed Hyderabad.

Consequently, in 2020, the sprawling metropolis administered by the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation is teeming with close to 10 million people. In contrast, the number of water bodies is down to just 190 from over 2,500 in 1970. Even this number is contested by environmental groups.

Flood at Musarambagh in Hyderabad. Photo credit: Special Arrangement

“Both, the ‘elected’ (MPs, MLAs, Corporators etc) and ‘selected’ (bureaucrats, revenue officials, municipal corporation) are responsible for a situation wherein, instead of the rainwater flowing into the river, it is rushing into homes”, alleged Lubna Sarwat, who championed Save Our Urban Lakes, a citizen’s initiative to save the lakes of Hyderabad.

In this rapid urbanisation, greed and lack of perspective growth plans, lands in river beds have been grabbed in the name of religious buildings and scores of colonies and apartment complexes have been built by all influential sections from politicians to real estate developers and lawmakers to industrial leaders, she alleged.

Need for a plan

The State Minister for Urban Development and IT, KT Rama Rao, had announced days before the flooding that the TRS Govt had spent Rs 67,500 crores on the development of urban infrastructure to prepare Hyderabad to emerge as a global city since 2015.

The government had firmed up a Musi River Front Project too. Its dreams of realising the expansion of the metropolis through the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority, which extends to 7,500 sq kms (size of Goa) call for dramatic and long term reforms in land use, building construction and infrastructure.

“With the Krishna and Godavari river basins too coming into the picture with water supply being brought to Hyderabad from long distances through pipelines, there is an urgent need to have an expert commission to devise land use plans, drainage and sewage systems and disaster mitigation,” said Ananth Mariganti, from the Hyderabad Urban Labs.

“Hyderabad and even Telangana state do not have a disaster management plans,” said Marri Shashidhar Reddy, former vice chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority. “They are not fully utilising the doppler radar, which can give advance and precise warnings. The focus is on disaster response, even while allowing unplanned growth.”

A former MLA, Reddy suggests annual desilting of storm drains, utilisation of weather data and an overall Master Plan to make Hyderabad ready to face disasters in the long run. With nearly 50% of revenues of the state and huge presence of industry, the economic loss of extreme events can be disastrous, he warned.

There is a need for exploring the concept of climate proofing cities, said V Srinivasa Chary of the Centre for Urban Governance and Infrastructure Development, Environment & Energy at the Administrative Staff College of India. In addition to disaster management, cities too require a certain amount of resilience built in. Hyderabad is a fit case to identify “hot spots” for flooding, design materials and systems that will withstand such events.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.