On May 20, 2020, in what is becoming a semi-annual environmental ritual, a super-cyclone pummelled through the Bengal delta, breaching embankments in the Sundarbans and submerging large swathes of Kolkata. The winds and the tides that accompany these super-cyclones have a curious way of foregrounding how deeply the concrete city is embedded in the deltaic ecology and the region’s hydrology.
The waters that bubbled up and gushed through the streets of Kolkata blurred the human-drawn administrative borders that separate the urban municipality of Kolkata from the mangrove forests of the estuarine Sundarbans.
Our disciplinary silos — urban planning, forestry, and oceanography — map onto these administrative demarcations of city, river, irrigation, and forest departments. Yet, as Kolkata expands through gated concrete communities of luxury apartments on its eastern fringes, the warming waters of the Bay of Bengal connect the urban hydrosphere more intimately with the creeks and the forests of this silty littoral.
Following cyclone Amphan, some of us woke up to images of half-submerged airplanes in the hangars of a flooded Kolkata airport, a facility which sits atop erstwhile wetlands. We saw water gushing through the streets, some swelling with books from Asia’s second largest book market in North Kolkata’s College Street.
For a brief moment, the delta reminded the city of its forgotten watery origins. In the meantime, increased pollution and carbon emissions are destabilising the monsoon, compelling the India Meteorological Department in January 2020 to ultimately revise its monsoon onset date.
It is thus an imperative that we investigate the past and future of Indian cities from the vantage point of the warming waters of the Indian Ocean and the tropical monsoon system.
This is not just Kolkata’s story. In the past few weeks, heavy rainfall in the drier north-western parts of India have meant that cities like Jaipur have seen heavy flooding, while streets in Gurugram have remained submerged in water.
Meanwhile, the encroachment of the Arabian Sea into Mumbai is the new normal. In Chennai, the water crisis has manifested its Janus face. The flooding of 2015 revealed the consequences of filling in the water bodies to make way for real estate. If the city was overwhelmed with too much water in 2015, by 2019 Chennai had reached Day Zero — the point when the city’s water reservoirs ran dry.
A barrage of problems
Addressing the root of Chennai’s water crisis, activist and scholar Nityanand Jayaraman pointed out that it sprang from the city’s broken relationship with its water. One may say the same for both Kolkata and Mumbai, where the crisis of rising waters from the rivers, seas, marshes, and sewage seeping into the streets and homes are a product of legal decisions taken and planning decisions left unimplemented over the course of the last century and a half.
Turning to the history of Kolkata’s urbanisation may…
Read more:: The monsoon, and our sinking cities