Decision Makers Must Stop Playing With The Geography Of Bhubaneswar City

Across the globe, urban planners are considered to be in the best public service profession. Just like medical science is there to take care of human beings’ good health, urban planners find solutions for the well-being of cities.

In recent times, people have been blaming poor urban planning whenever there is waterlogging, congestion, pollution, heat wave, garbage issues, etc.

Blaming is fine in the sense that the state recruited the last person through its public service commission about 30 years ago — he  has reached the top position of Chief Town Planner — without a clue about the successor.

Just imagine what the situation in state administration would have been if there was no recruitment over three decades in civil services, health sector, police, engineering services, etc.

Urban planning in the state has reached a rusty state, which can’t help in meeting expectations. It took almost three decades or so for society to identify urban planners, even though for wrong reasons from identity of family planning profession.

Going back in history, people of Temple City would have had to travel to Daya or Kuakhai river to witness floods. But 30 years down the line, Bhubaneswar has floods in its own backyard. Yes, waterlogging was very much common initially in specific pockets, and is now visible in every other part of Bhubaneswar, whenever it rains – be it summer, winter or monsoon.

Recently, heavy rains resulted Temple City receiving 286 mm of rain on a single day (July 31). The heaviest rain of the year so far saw thousands of commuters being stranded. There was waist-high water in many parts of the city, rain water entered several homes, and several vehicles were seen floating in water.

Multiple authorities don’t seem to have taken lessons from the past, even though the city is governed by the state’s richest civic body Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation, Bhubaneswar Development Authority, National Highway Authority of India and many other state and Central government agencies led by Mayor, bureaucrats and technocrats.

The authorities came under attack from several quarters but, as usual, the municipal body and others denied their failure with the excuse that situation was “exceptional” and blamed each other. Incidentally, before monsoon arrived, the civic body and highway authorities had promised no waterlogging in the city this year.

Heavy rains choking the upcoming Smart City have become an annual affair in the last decade. The reasons are old bad governance, poor town planning and outdated engineering skills etc.

Whether it was 100 cm or 40 mm of rain is not the issue, as it has nothing to do with the quantum of water, but with the faulty outdated planning of the city.

Flooding or waterlogging in the city were the result of following factors:

First, over the years, decision makers grossly flouted the geography of the city by creating lots of barriers in between the west and east slopes.

Secondly, all natural drains were squeezed into concrete drains as carriers of sewerage.

Thirdly, road widening, flyovers, medians didn’t sync with drains that were constructed across the roads because of slope and elevation.

Fourth reason is despite reduction in rainy days, the quantity of rainfall has remained same or increased, and hence the existing drainage system is not capable of handling the situation within short durations.

Lastly, during heavy rainfall, surplus water is blocked by various obstacles from dissipation spaces like wetlands, wastelands that once used to act like sponges and take the pressure off the natural drains, canals and rivers. They have been destroyed systematically over the past decade by destructive development of the city.

Trees, green spaces and their soil used to act as a sponge to absorb rainwater, preventing it from building up into flash floods. They have been taken over by concrete jungles, and so waterlogging is very common in Bhubaneswar. In the past, about 50 per cent of rainwater was absorbed by the natural ground cover (trees, grass, etc.) and into the ground, 10 per cent water ran into rivers and drains, while and 40 per cent evaporated back to the atmosphere.

With urbanisation, perhaps only 15 per cent or so of rainwater infiltrates the soil, while the runoff has increased to 55 per cent and evaporation is 30 per cent. As a result, in Bhubaneswar’s ‘sponge’ perhaps now absorbs just 10-15 per cent of the rainwater compared to 50 per cent previously.

Should the civic bodies and government be blamed all the time? Well, the citizens should be equally blamed for waterlogging on streets during rains as they carelessly block the drains by throwing garbage like plastic materials, etc.

Most of Bhubaneswar’s drain water goes into Gangabati river, now known as Gangua Sewerage Channel that ultimately merges with Daya river and finally into Chilika Lake. Some rainwater goes into the low-lying areas based on topography, which if flooded directly impacts Bhubaneswar.

The natural drains are now used as storm water drainage and it’s crucial to address rainwater management in the city.

Shockingly, Bhubaneswar’s storm water drainage system was built during the nineties and is yet to be synchronised with city topography. Even the Smart City mission seems in no hurry to build an advanced drainage system. There is no scientific information available on how much rainfall the city is capable of handling. The city’s drainage system seems capable of handling around 35 mm rain in a day and roads get flooded if it rains more than 20 mm within one hour.

Over the years, experts have suggested several solutions to prevent waterlogging in Bhubaneswar. These include rainwater harvesting, widening and deepening of drains, complete ban on the use of plastic bags and clearing of encroachment along the drainage channels. But nothing is so far visible on the ground.

Bhubaneswar can take some cues from some international cities that plan to mitigate urban flooding. Cities across the globe are turning flood-prone areas such as swampy and marshy lands into “sponges” to prevent flooding and to retain rainwater. Chinese cities launched the sponge city project in 2015 through which it aims to retain 70 per cent of rain in 80 per cent of urban areas.

Bhubaneswar should aim for programmes like constructing permeable roads that enable water to infiltrate the ground, replacing pavements on roads and parks to make them permeable, building wetlands to absorb and store rainwater, constructing rooftop gardens, planting trees on streets and public squares, building community gardens and parks to expand green spaces and building reservoirs and preserving agricultural land to hold water.

Sponge cities are the way to go for the future. The authorities should try to upgrade urban drainage infrastructure and make it a priority to retain valuable water resources and utilise the natural system to achieve drainage management, establish natural retention, natural infiltration and natural purification like a sponge city.

The city’s decision makers must stop playing with geography of the city or else, the geography of the city will not only play with city’s lifestyle but will also kill the city. Bhubaneswar must grow up with city topography as quantity of rainfall will increase and reduction in duration will be a big challenge in future.

The present approach of hiring urban planners as consultants through manpower supplier agencies will further damage the system and undermine the profession of city planners without accountability. Rather, the government must fill the vacuum of three decades’ knowledge of urban planners by incentivising innovation and fixing accountability.

That is what will help Odisha achieve its dream by the time it turns 100 in just 13 years.

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