A flood of inaction

As the city races against the clock to plug the leaks in its flood-control plan before another ‘extreme’ downpour stuns city life, Prabhat Shukla, Ashish Srivastava & Shekhar Singh assess the city’s preparedness to curb the civic disorder.
A flood of inaction

Monsoon announced its arrival in the capital with a stunning showdown on June 28. “Extreme weather conditions” prevailed as the clouds let loose; rains descended in a barrage, 228 mm rainfall battering the city in a span of few hours. While the rainfall may have been unprecedented (last comparable downpour recorded 85 years ago), the civic disorder that followed was very familiar; the waterlogged streets, the crawling traffic, and the glaring cracks in our urban infrastructure jarred memories of a year ago.

Citizens were left asking whether this was the extent of their woes, or if there was more at hand; for if the June 28 deluge was only a trailer, one can only imagine what the season holds. With the authorities fumbling to manage a day’s downpour, things do not look promising for the citizen.

Thus, it’s time we took a closer look at the ‘corrective measures’ being undertaken by the authorities following its early season flop-show in containing civic woes. Are we prepared to see the season through with minimum hassle?

The River, a drain

Barely weeks ago, water minister Atishi was hospitalised following a four-day hunger strike in protest of the Haryana government, allegedly restraining the flow of Yamuna water into the national capital during the heatwave. The minister complained of depleted water levels in the river, holding it responsible for the acute water shortage in the city.

However, with an ironic turn in weather conditions exposing the bareness of the government’s flood management plans, Atishi, on Friday, announced the inauguration of a round-the-clock flood control room to oversee Yamuna water levels during the monsoons.

Speaking at the occassion alongside Flood Control minister Saurabh Bharadwaj, Atishi said the control room, stationed at the office of the East Delhi District Magistrate, will gather real-time data from the Hathni Kund Barrage, the site from where water is released into the Yamuna.

Asserting the government’s commitment to flood prevention, the minister said, “This flood control room will have people deployed from all concerned departments including the Delhi government, Delhi Development Authority, Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation of Delhi. It will also involve services like the BSES, Delhi Jal Board, Tata Power, and health department,” she said.

The control room is designed to monitor weather conditions along the Yamuna banks and would facilitate informed decision-making based on the observations. Relief and rescue operations will be activated when the water release exceeds one lakh cusecs, the ministers said, adding, the flood and revenue departments will lead the evacuations and relief efforts if water levels breach the threshold.

This initiative follows a strategic meet between the government with relevant departments and agencies to assess and implement flood control measures. Ministers insisted that, this time, the city government is fully prepared to deal with floods. Meanwhile, a public announcement by the government warned people living in the ‘khadar’ (low-lying) areas along the Yamuna to be aware. “As per need, people living there are taken to relief camps set up for the people affected by the flood,” a statement declared.

Atishi said NDRF officials also took part in the government’s flood management meet and are on standby in case a calamity unfolds. The details of all the machinery to be used in relief and rescue operations by all the concerned departments like motor boats, life jackets etc. were also discussed in the meeting. Reflecting on the Delhi deluge of 2023, Atishi said the Yamuna reached a historic high of 208.66 m, the highest in 70 years. “We hope this time there is no flood situation in Delhi. But even if there is, the government is fully prepared,” Atishi said.

Meanwhile, Irrigation and Flood Control minister Saurabh Bharadwaj said there is always a possibility of Yamuna water level rising during the monsoons. “Last year, more water was released from Hathni Kund Barrage and the ITO Barrage gates were not opened. Due to this, a flood situation was created. This time, all the gates of ITO Barrage have been opened; the gates which did not open have been cut,” Bharadwaj assured.

Diseases loom

Vector-borne diseases, particularly dengue, comes to haunt Delhi residents during the monsoon months when stagnant waters provide ideal breeding conditions for the Aedes mosquitoes, the carriers of the dengue virus. In the last eight years, the city has witnessed three of its worst dengue outbreaks, putting a huge question mark on the tall claims by government and civics bosies to control the spread of vector-borne ills.

The worst dengue outbreak was reported in 2015 when the city logged 15,867 cases of the viral infection and 60 deaths — an unusual spike fuelled by a particularly virulent strain. In 2021, the capital recorded the second-worst dengue outbreak after about 9,613 cases were logged and 23 cases of death were reported.

Many believed that the magnamity of the outbreak was underreported which prompted the city government to include dengue under the category of notifiable diseases through a notification in 2021 which made reporting of each case mandatory for healthcare facilities. However, the situation was repeated in 2023 when the city saw another major outbreak; according to government figures on cases and deaths, the 2023 monsoon was the third-worst dengue season recorded in the city despite widespread sanitation and cleaning drives across the city, largely for the G-20 Summit. According to National Centre for Disease Control data, the capital recorded 9,266 cases of dengue and 19 deaths due to the viral disease.

This year, the Delhi government has mandated that all city school students must wear full-sleeve clothing during the monsoons to curb dengue outbreak. Additionally, civic bodies have been instructed to implement measures to stop mosquito breeding, including fogging exercises in slums, industrial areas, and other areas, besides raising awareness among residents. These directives were issued by health minister Bharadwaj following a meet to review the city’s preparedness for cheching vector-borne diseases during the monsoon.

Reportedly, nearly four million pamphlets on public awareness against vector illnesses have been printed for distribution. Besides, Asha workers have been sensitised on dengue awareness, a radio jingle has been created and will be on air soon, and genome sequencing of sampling has been increased, officials said, following the government meet.

MCD officials briefed Bharadwaj that all schools under the civic body are providing students with dengue homework cards, and breeding checking has been increased to ensure that mosquitoes do not breed in residential and other areas. Officials said they will organise parent-teacher meetings in the last week of July to sensitise parents about dengue and malaria-related precautions.

All schools have been directed to tell students to wear full-sleeve clothing, and issue dengue homework cards to students. The health minister stressed the need for stringent monitoring, noting that private schools have not fully adhered to the guidelines on full-sleeve clothing. He called for a mechanism to verify the issuance and use of dengue homework cards to ensure compliance with the government directives. An advisory would be issued in the second week of July on activities to prevent mosquito breeding in the capital, officials informed.

Gathering silt

On Wednesday, the MCD announced that the first phase of the desilting work has been completed, with nearly 80,690 metric tonnes of silt removed from the 713 drains. “Machinery and manpower are deployed at ground level for desilting work; machines such as suction cum jetting machines, suction machines, jetting machines, porcelains, backhoe loaders, and trucks are used for cleaning of drains,” the civic body stated.

“The corporation wants to ensure that the people of Delhi do not face problems due to waterlogging during the monsoons. MCD has achieved an average of 103.37% of the desilting target set for drains under its jurisdiction,” the civic body said.

Later, the MCD said it had successfully completed the desilting of 14 major drains under its jurisdiction. The irrigation and flood control department is scheduled to take over 22 drains, 14 of which belong to the MCD and have been desilted by the civic body this year. Despite completing the first round of desilting, MCD officials emphasized the importance of a second round to minimize waterlogging during heavy rains. To further bolster efforts, the MCD has deployed extra portable pumps at vulnerable spots and established control rooms at the headquarters and all its 12 zones.

In the courts

As monsoon rains inundate Delhi streets, the recurring issue of waterlogging has once again highlighted the inefficacy of authorities’ efforts, despite repeated assurances to the Delhi High Court. The promises of seamless drainage and effective desilting appear far from reality, casting doubt on the commitments to resolve the city’s perennial water woes.

Back in April, the high court was apprised of the progress to rejuvenate the capital’s water bodies. Out of the 1,367 identified water bodies, ground truthing was completed for 344, and 272 had been restored. The restoration of an additional 72 water bodies was reportedly in progress. However, it was also noted that several of them no longer exist in their original form, raising concerns over the actual on-ground scenario.

Over the past six months, the court repeatedly urged the Delhi government, and civic bodies to ensure the city is prepared ahead of the monsoons. Highlighting significant gaps in the strategy to address waterlogging, the court critiqued a presentation by the chief secretary on various aspects such as the drainage master plan and rainwater harvesting.

The court’s directive was clear: deploy a single agency to tackle the issue, emphasizing that the lack of coordination among multiple bodies exacerbates the problem. This fragmentation, the court noted, hinders effective resolution of the waterlogging crisis. The court expressed its dissatisfaction, labeling the city’s drainage system as “absolutely pathetic” and in dire need of attention and action.

Looking Back

A year ago, the capital witnessed one of its worst flood situations after heavy rains lashed the city. The Yamuna, swollen after heavy showers in its upper catchment area, came to inundate extensive stretches of its floodlands (now, densely populated areas due to relentless urbanisation and encroachment) in the city.

The excess rainwater, which would be otherwise drained into the river, stood stagnant on streets, chest-deep water turning thoroughfares into putrid swamps. Nearly 25,000 people living in severely flooded areas were forced into relief camps.

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