When the cities sink, what’s the water that stinks?

Water that inundates our cities, when they flood due to extreme precipitation events or otherwise, is a complex mix of pollutants including faecal sludge, chemical contaminants and many more hazardous substances.  While it is essential to work towards making our cities flood resilient, it’s also vital to plan for better wastewater management. 

New norm: living with disasters

World is living in a season of hurricanes right now.  After the hurricane Harvey, that has been termed as one of the most devastating storms in US history, the hurricane Irma wreaked havoc in the Caribbean and Florida.  It was then followed by José and Maria that too had devastating impacts leaving thousands of people homeless without water, food and power.  Maria completely ripped apart small island state Puerto Rico.  Everything collapsed simultaneously, the disaster management officials of the state had to evacuate themselves from the buildings they were in and the Guajataca dam, in Northwest Puerto Rico, sustained huge damages causing immediate evacuation of more than 70000 people downstream.  As we complete writing this article, heavy rains caused by another storm Nate, that hit large parts of Central America, had already killed 25 people.   We have seen worst flood and drought events in South Asia and India during this season as well.  Urban floods have increased in numbers, intensities and devastations due to extreme precipitation events.

1990s was designated by the UN as the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.  Ironically, devastations from disasters have grown ever since mostly due to impacts of climate change.  In a research published in Science Daily, Aslak Grinsted of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen explains, “We find that 0.4 degrees Celcius warming of the climate corresponds to a doubling of the frequency of extreme storm surges like the one following Hurricane Katrina. With the global warming we have had during the 20th century, we have already crossed the threshold where more than half of all ‘Katrinas’ are due to global warming.“ “If the temperature rises an additional degree, the frequency will increase by 3-4 times and if the global climate becomes two degrees warmer, there will be about 10 times as many extreme storm surges. This means that there will be a ‘Katrina’ magnitude storm surge every other year,” says Grinsted and he points out that in addition to there being more extreme storm surges, the sea will also rise due to global warming. As a result, the storm surges will become worse and potentially more destructive.

Humanitarians cost of responding to the disasters have also been increasing fast.  As the World Disasters Report informs, between 2004 and 2016 the UN’s annual appeal for international aid increased from 3.7 billion to 20.1 billion USD.  The real loss to countries is much more.  The 2017 hurricane season has already have worst impacts on the Caribbean countries, with Irma alone costing the region approximately 13 billion USD.  Economic losses from disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and flooding are now reaching an average of 250 billion USD to 300 billion USD each year, says a UN Global Assessment Report on Disasters prepared in 2015.  According to this report, India’s average annual economic loss due to disasters is estimated to be 9.8 billion USD which includes more than 7 billion USD loss on account of floods.

Urban floods and waste management

Often real losses in terms of human health, livelihood and ecological impacts are pushed aside by estimates of loss of infrastructure.  Urban wastes are as much a livelihood opportunity for some sections of the poor as much they are a health risk for most of the city dwellers.  Our cities are struggling to manage their wastes and in times of flooding all the water that submerge the streets, the water bodies and rest of the spaces float with all the wastes we have not been able to manage properly.  And that’s huge.

Data gathering and reporting system in India are still not well equipped to warn us of the exact dangers our city populations may be facing due to hazardous substances in the flood waters, however it would be good to take a cue from what US cities have been reporting during this hurricane season.  This would help us develop our own systems and mitigate the risks.

On 14th September, the New Republic reported that ‘Florida’s Poop Nightmare Has Come True.’ The hurricane Irma caused flooding that, by the time this report was published, led to release of at least 28 million gallons of treated and untreated sewage released into the open.

The original amount was estimated to be much more.  Some people did not hesitate to call Irma as a ‘Shit storm’ that was given rise because of an age old infrastructure and climate change.

For South Florida, the waste management infrastructure for which was designed for a lower sea level, things have especially gone worse post Irma as it was already predicted by experts.  As the Washington Post reported, “the only reason the naturally swampy terrain of South Florida can sustain more than six million people today is because its previous residents dredged and drained it. The operations started in the late 1800s, and by the 1970s Floridians had built an expansive network of canals, levees, and pumping stations to keep water at bay. The system, which was designed to let gravity drag groundwater downstream to the ocean, was based on 1930s sea levels, as Frederick Bloetscher, a water-management expert, pointed out during a 2014 US Senate hearing on Florida’s changing coastline. Fast forward nearly 90 years, and sea levels are higher”.

Cities in the US have been fighting with this menace for long and despite several initiatives they are caught unprepared by the increased episodes of hurricane induced floods.  Pumping out of the faecal sludge and other wastes to the Bays has been the last resort but there have been issues of contamination of the sea.  A study by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and several Florida Universities, as reported in the Washington Post, found out that the water that Miami Beach pumped into Biscayne Bay in 2014 and 2015 after king tides had live faecal bacteria that significantly exceeded regulatory limits. Then there is the problem of backlash by the sea during tides.  There have been evidences of the sea dumping huge quantity of water on the pumping stations making them defunct.

All these are issues our Indian cities do face as well.  In fact, our issues are much larger and complex than what have been reported from these US coastal cities.  We have our faecal contaminants loitering on the open streets, in open areas and almost everywhere.  So, our cities virtually float on shit water when flooded.  Yet, we don’t have a system of monitoring them and there is no special strategy to mitigate the impacts. The floating wastes in India destroy the livelihood of millions of urban poor and cause health hazards for most of the people living in urban limits and beyond.

Mapping the risks and building resilience

Urban populations continue to soar and currently about 54.5 per cent of the global population lives in cities. This is going to increase further and by 2050 it is estimated that 7 of 10 people in the globe will be living in cities.  It is evident from examples of US cities that even high income countries are struggling to make their urban infrastructure climate resilient.  For countries like India that’s a huge call especially because the poorest of the poor are the most vulnerable to both climate change induced disasters and poor infrastructural and developmental planning of the ever burgeoning cities.

There is an urgent need for developing strong tools for each of our cities to not only understand the risks from calamities but also hazards from the waste spill related to them.  Our city planners need to equip themselves with such new tools so as to save their cities from the short-term poop disasters that can often have long term negative health impacts.  Existing sanitation infrastructures need to get improved and new ones integrated with the resilience plans.  The regulatory authorities such as Pollution Control Boards do also have a greater need to develop their capacities to understand spread and contents of pollutants during urban flood disasters and handle them with support of the urban bodies.


This article was first published in Urban Update

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