Hyderabad: In a viral video filmed in the aftermath of the Hyderabad flashfloods last week, a 75-year-old man is heard telling a city-based channel: “The water did not enter our homes, we entered spaces meant for water bodies.”
This, experts say, is the story of the Hyderabad deluge that made headlines last week with its apocalyptic impact on the Telangana capital. And the one that hit the city in 2016. And the ones in 2005 and 2000.
Over 70 people were killed across Telangana on 13 October as a depression over the Bay of Bengal crossed the coast and brought heavy rains to Andhra Pradesh and its sister Telugu state. Telangana had witnessed showers in the days before, with the rains also continuing in the ensuing days, but the ferocity of that downpour shattered an over-100-year record for October rains in Hyderabad in a 24-hour period.
The city received 19.2 cm of rainfall over 24 hours, and left at least 30 people dead in the Greater Hyderabad limits (Hyderabad city and parts of adjoining districts). Footage of the deluge showed entire areas overrun with gushing waters, and there were many accounts of people seeing their family members get washed away.
In 2016, at least seven people were killed in the city as heavy rains led to flooding and incidents of wall/roof collapse. Eleven years before that, a 30-minute spell of rain in December wrought havoc on Hyderabad. In 2000, torrential rains left as many as 90 colonies submerged and at least 20 people dead.
According to experts, Hyderabad’s vulnerability to floods stems from the gradual demolition of a framework built by its erstwhile Nizam rulers to make the city “flood-proof”.
It was a devastating flood in 1908, when raging waters from the river Musi left 15,000 people dead, that spurred this initiative.
However, over the years, rampant construction on lake beds, and the buffer and catchment areas of water bodies, has robbed the city of that safety net, say experts.
The Telangana government acknowledges the role played by humans in exacerbating the impact of the record rains, and claims to be taking steps to elevate the situation.
But experts are wary. They say the urban planning of the city requires a overhaul. And urgently so, because they predict the situation might worsen otherwise.
Nizam-era system damaged
After the 1908 flood, the government of the erstwhile Nizam Mahbub Ali Khan called in engineering wizard M. Visvesvaraya, a Bharat Ratna awardee whose birth anniversary is observed as Engineers’ Day to this day, to suggest ways to avoid another disaster of that scale.
Visvesvaraya suggested creating storage reservoirs 100 feet above the city that would control floods by storing the excess water from the Musi. This led to the creation of two major reservoirs — Himayat Sagar and Osmansagar — that now serve as a major source of drinking water for a significant part of the city.
In the aftermath of the 1908 floods, experts told ThePrint, around 3,000 small lakes were developed in Hyderabad. In addition to the lakes that already existed in the city for irrigation purposes — one of the biggest man-made lakes, the heart-shaped Hussain Sagar, was built in the 16th century — these water bodies deployed a network of interconnections to guard Hyderabad against floods.
As of 2017, according to official data, there were 2,800 lakes under the urban planning agency Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority (HMDA), whose jurisdiction spreads over 7,257 sq km across seven districts.
However, activists claim at least 50 per cent of these water bodies now serve as repositories of sewage and industrial effluents, or host encroachments.
In less than a century, Hyderabad has expanded to 625 sq km as Greater Hyderabad, from an area of 55 sq km, and activists say this expansion was accompanied by wide-scale constructions — authorised and unauthorised — in waterbed areas. This, despite the HDMA issuing directives to ban construction activity in these pockets.
Beginning 2000, activist Thakur Raj Singh said, encroachments “increased a lot… because Hyderabad was slowly becoming the site of the booming IT industry”.
Along with the erratic weather patterns brought on by climate change, this has put Hyderabad in a precarious situation. According to activists, Hyderabad had “warnings” since the 1990s that even minimal rainfall could lead to inundation in colonies.
“For the state, a disaster response team is only ‘rescue and relief’, but where is the preparedness? Of course climate change is a big factor, but this is going to be the situation in the coming days or probably worse,” senior hydrogeologist B.V. Subba Rao told ThePrint.
“The trend of climate change affecting rainfall started in the 1990s. How prepared is the city’s water infrastructure to handle it? They’re not — they’ve constantly neglected it for decades. For the government, the infrastructure is metro, bridges, roads and buildings,” Subba Rao added.
Floods in Hyderabad are “absolutely a man-made disaster”, said Lubna Sarawath of Save Our Urban Lakes, a campaign aimed at preserving the city’s water bodies.
“The government looks at low-lying areas or slums when talking about encroachments, but several posh areas also have buildings on lake beds. There are government projects on lake beds,” she added.
The activists’ concerns are borne out by the trends witnessed during the recent floods, when the colonies built in lake catchment areas and beds recorded the worst flooding. In this month’s floods, the colonies built on lake beds stayed submerged for eight days straight.
A city struggling
After Hyderabad battled floods in 2000, the Kirloskar committee, set up by the then united Andhra Pradesh government, examined the reasons for the flooding. In its report, submitted in 2003, the panel said 13,500 illegal structures had come up on 390 km of drains.
The number of illegal encroachments has gone up to 28,000 in the years since, according to state government estimates, and Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao said in 2016 that they would require Rs 11,000 crore to be cleared.
Experts say the need of the hour is to revamp the city’s urban planning or it would be a situation of “worse to come”.
“The problem is the local/urban bodies do not have the power to implement anything. The mayor just takes orders from the Chief Minister. According to the Constitution’s 74th amendment, local government should be given its own powers,” environmentalist and political activist Prof. Purushotham Reddy said.
Addressing a press conference Monday, Municipal Administration Minister K.T. Rama Rao said the government has identified a few illegal encroachments and they would be demolished soon. He added that they are trying to identify as many encroachments as possible across the city.
“I have been in the city for at least 40 years and have never seen something like this. Considering we have a few more days of rainfall forecast… this year might just end up being the highest rainfall in the history of Hyderabad,” he said.
He acknowledged the floods were “also a man-made disaster” but said “we cannot blame a single government or single administration for the situation today….this is a record rainfall over 100 years”.
“This is nature’s fury and also it is a man-made disaster… I am not denying (about encroachments)….we have all the details, reports etc. But, our focus right now is to make sure there are no lives lost,” he added. “And all these encroachments did not happen in a day, this is the result of actions happening since years.”
ThePrint reached Telangana Animal Husbandry & Fisheries Minister Talasani Srinivas Yadav — who has been touring the city to gauge the flood impact — for a comment for this report, but calls to him went unanswered.