The Absorbers: Disaster And Vulnerability In Mumbai


  • Any disaster policy will fail unless the root causes of vulnerability are well understood and addressed.

This post is an excerpt from How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberia, written by Stan Cox, a plant breeder at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and his son Paul Cox, an anthropologist and writer based in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Affluent countries have available a thick catalog of disaster policies to debate and try out. Some policies are effective, some a waste of money, some potentially catastrophic. For others around the world, the options are far more limited. Are there real solutions for nations or communities who can’t afford to build high-tech floodgates, massive surge barriers, or shiny new eco-cities? What about families who can never imagine paying insurance premiums when they are hard pressed to buy their daily bread or rice? Or those who would like to retreat from a high-risk zone but have nowhere to go?

The global North has a long tradition of dealing with the South’s geoclimatic disasters by providing funds aimed at rescuing disaster victims, alleviating their immediate misery, and maybe rebuilding some housing and schools. Now, with a complex international policy system in place, the focus is shifting to the resilience of those most affected. Any disaster policy will fail, however, unless the root causes of vulnerability are well understood and addressed. In booming cities such as Mumbai, India, those roots run fiendishly deep through the landscape. The most vulnerable residents are all too familiar with the origins of their disasters, but ripping those roots out from beneath the streets is more difficult and far more politically charged than most elected officials or city planners are willing to consider.

Making Disaster Inevitable 

For a geoclimatic disaster to occur, people and property obviously must be exposed to a hazard, and for a variety of reasons this happens far too often. When typhoons make landfall, they usually find people, making a living off a fertile landscape and crop-friendly climate; for example, without rains generated during cyclone season, the vast rice-producing areas of the Philippines and eastern India would be far less productive. But living on dangerous slopes, whether fertile or badly degraded, is not a voluntary choice for most of the highly vulnerable populations who do so. Across the Americas, Africa, and Asia, high-value crops claim the best valley landscapes, pushing subsistence farms onto slopes that should not be tilled in the first place.

Starting in the 1950s, farmers in Honduras were forced more and more from rich valley lands onto mountain slopes. Conversion of ejido (community) lands into private tracts for growing cash and export crops, steep rents, and summary eviction put agricultural lands in the hands of a wealthy few while creating large populations of impoverished, landless farmers. With lowlands increasingly devoted to bananas, cattle, melons, cotton, and sugarcane, farm families had no choice but to cultivate the highlands. Pressure to produce crops for export increased in the 1990s as Honduras struggled to deal with foreign debt and the demands of international lenders. Then Hurricane Mitch struck in 1998. Meandering over the Central American isthmus as if on a malevolent search for people and property, the storm killed an estimated ten thousand in Honduras alone, destroying or damaging half of all homes in the country and taking out 160 bridges. In total, eighteen thousand lives were lost along the storm’s path; with half of those deaths, victims’ bodies were never found.

Mitch remains the deadliest Atlantic hurricane since 1780, when a storm killed more than 20,000 in Barbados and Martinique. But the toll should not have been that high. The suffering was as much a result of economic relations in Central America as of wind and rain. In Honduras, according to anthropologists Bradley Ensor and Marisa Ensor,

deforestation played a key role in the devastating effects of the intense rains borne by Hurricane Mitch. . . . The connection between unsustainable natural resource-use practices, environmental degradation, and heightened conditions of vulnerability supports the premise that “natural” disasters like Hurricane Mitch are fundamentally social in nature . . . [T]he increased concentration of lands in the hands of fewer wealthy landlords, the dwindling access to agricultural lands for the majority of peasants, and the lack of sufficient employment opportunities all led to high levels of unemployment and job insecurity. Many Hondurans were forced to seek livelihoods and residential locations on hillsides and mountainsides, resulting in deforestation that in turn resulted in unstable slopes, landslides, and mudslides in the presence of a natural catalyst like Mitch.

Impoverished city dwellers fared no better: “Since land suitable for construction purposes is scarce and expensive, many of these shantytowns have been built on highly unstable hill slopes that are prone to landslides and mudslides during the rainy season. In fact, crowded squatter settlements built on the steep hillsides that surround the center of Tegucigalpa were among the neighborhoods most severely damaged by Hurricane Mitch.”

When they strike urban areas, geoclimatic hazards encounter an especially target-rich environment. In and around cities across the Earth’s surface, three things are consistent: where landslides are the main hazard, slums cling to steep slopes; where the threat is flooding, slums are found on the lowest ground; and where earthquakes are likely, poorly constructed houses huddle on the least stable ground. In his book Planet of Slums, environmental historian Mike Davis takes just seven pages to prove that in poor urban communities disaster is inevitable—whether residents are being washed out by floods in Buenos Aires, Dhaka, Manila, Khartoum, or Vijayawada, India; losing everything to a landslide in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Algiers, or Ponce, Puerto Rico; or seeing their families crushed by an earthquake in Mexico City, Guatemala City, Lima, Istanbul, or Johannesburg.

Drowning in Development

In July 2005, more than three feet of rain fell in a single day on Mumbai. More rain fell in eighteen hours than is received by most Indian cities in a year, and it was the heaviest one-day rainfall ever recorded in a country that contains some of the wettest places on Earth. Water depths reached twelve feet in several low-lying areas of the city and suburbs. An estimated 419 Mumbai residents died of drowning or other trauma. To wade or swim through the water to higher ground, people formed long human chains, if they could maintain their grip. Many could not. More than a million people were stranded overnight in cars, in offices, on tops of buses—wherever they could avoid the fate of those they saw swept away in the swift currents that ran through the streets.

The city’s vulnerability to flooding had long been a painful reality to residents of its slums, which occupy only 10 percent of Mumbai’s land area but are home to more than half its population. Many of those areas are low-lying, poorly drained, and frequently inundated by even routine monsoon rains. But the sheer scale of this disaster and the fact that it brought an entire metropolis, India’s biggest and richest, to its knees was enough to send storm drainage straight to the top of Mumbai’s long list of urgent issues. Media attention in July and August 2005 focused on flooding in the historic city center, the financial district, the airport, and other cogs of the local, national, and global economy (much as with Sandy in New York City). But it was in the less glamorous working-class neighborhoods where the suffering was greatest.

htm_2005072808554040004010-001Mumbai is squeezed onto a narrow peninsula reaching south from India’s western coast into the Arabian Sea. The lower part of the peninsula, South Mumbai—the longtime seat of government and commercial power and chief destination for foreign tourists coming to see the Gateway of India and hang out at Café Leopold—was once seven small islands. Through dredging operations that began in the early 1800s and have never completely stopped, the islands were joined to one another and to the mainland. The former islands now constitute the city’s slightly higher-elevation and relatively affluent neighborhoods, with Malabar Hill being the most well known. The reclaimed lands surrounding the high ground are vulnerable to monsoon flooding. Some northern parts of the city where the worst flooding occurred in 2005 are also reclaimed lands; they are home to some of the city’s most valuable real estate as well as its largest slums. Those areas are drained, or are supposed to be drained, by the thirty-mile-long Mithi River, which emerges from the highlands of Sanjay Gandhi National Park north of the city and empties into the Arabian Sea through Mahim Bay.

In a report that is still the most comprehensive investigation into the causes of and response to the 2005 flood, a Concerned Citizens’ Commission of nongovernmental experts emphasized the crucial roles that three of the city’s premier development projects played in causing the disaster. Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport was originally built on a wetland. Repeated expansion of the airport required extensive rerouting of the Mithi, to the point that the once nearly straight river was for a time forced to make four right-angle turns; it was later restraightened by running it through a tunnel under one of the runways. A little farther downstream, construction of an enormous business park began in the 1970s and continues today. The area, called the Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC), is home to steel-and-glass office blocks containing 1.75 million square feet of space for government, commercial, and high-finance activities. It is also located on land reclaimed from a swamp, and it straddles the river. The National Stock Exchange is in BKC, sitting smack atop the original course of the Mithi. Then there is the spectacular SeaLink toll bridge, which spans the wide mouth of Mahim Bay and allows north-south commuters on the Western Express Highway to bypass the traffic congestion of Greater Mumbai’s midsection. (Critics say that SeaLink simply funnels more cars more efficiently into South Mumbai, intensifying the already horrific gridlock there.) The environmental clearance issued for SeaLink in 1999 allowed for 11.6 acres of new land to be dredged up for supporting the two ends of the bridge; instead, and in violation of the permit, 66.7 new acres have been created. The row of ninety pillars supporting the 3.4-mile-long structure has reduced the remaining effective width of the river mouth by one-third. The land reclamation and pillars together have caused the Mithi River to back up and flood during heavy rains, blocking inland flood waters from draining out.

The commission concluded that future floods the size of those in 2005 could not be prevented without demolishing parts of BKC and the airport and stopping construction of the SeaLink bridge and further expansion of BKC into former mangrove areas. Those recommendations were ignored. Authorities have continued “training” the Mithi, making it easier for developers to keep building while further reducing the river’s capacity to handle runoff. The peninsula’s natural drainage patterns have long been erased. At the time of the big flood, the Mithi River and intertidal zones no longer even appeared on the city government’s land-use maps.

Because slum dwellings are constructed with more porous materials and often surrounded by bare soil rather than concrete roads and parking lots, the commission wrote, they are “generally more ‘absorbent’ and serve as a sacrificial buffer in heavy rain,” helping to drain rich Mumbai and preserve the city in its fragile state. Now, according to the commission, “replacement of slums by water-repelling [multistory] middle and upper class developments increases population and infrastructure requirements and further worsens the flooding problem.” Slum settlements in Mumbai have tended to be built on low-lying land near water channels, which is often the only space available to families just arriving in the city to seek work. City officials and middle-class Mumbai residents often complain that the cause of the 2005 flood and more routine inundation is encroachment by slum settlements along the banks of rivers and creeks, where, it is argued, they constrict the water’s flow and their trash clogs the waterways. Those who actually have to live in the “sacrificial buffers” don’t see it that way at all. Slum dwellers’ advocate Sachin Kadam told us, “Let people say whatever they want. Our concern is how to get our two meals a day. It’s the developers, not we in the slums, who are doing most of the construction near waterways and on wetlands.”

After the big flood, disaster mitigation expert Aromar Revi wrote that for decades, “Mumbaikers, pragmatic, vital people that they are . . . went about life as usual, all the way into the early evening of July 26, 2005. But by nightfall, it was clear to many million people in Mumbai that life may never be quite the same again. An exceptional rainstorm finally put to rest the long-prevailing myth of Mumbai’s indestructible resilience to all kinds of shocks.” In the minds of many, an event that overwhelming should have served as a wake-up call. But while it unmasked Mumbai’s increasing vulnerability, the flood appeared to stiffen the city’s resistance to any policy changes that might undermine its famed moneymaking prowess. Heedless maldevelopment has continued. Meanwhile, sea level rise combined with increased rainfall will dramatically increase the extent and depth of flooding, doubling the likelihood that a flood on the scale of the 2005 catastrophe will recur.

Life in the Urban Wetland

Dharavi is the largest slum in Mumbai, in India, perhaps in the world. Home to at least one hundred thousand families, the sprawling city within a city comprises hundreds of distinct neighborhoods; it gained international notoriety as the setting of the 2008 Academy Award–winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Much of Dharavi, which is situated near the Mithi River and adjacent to the Bandra-Kurla Complex, was deeply inundated by the huge 2005 rainstorm.

In early 2014, we talked with Shamshaad Sheik, Zahida Qureshi, Mumtaz Qureshi, Halema Sheik, Aabeda Qureshi, and several other women who live in Annanagar, a Muslim neighborhood of about five hundred families in Dharavi’s Sector 3. They all lived through the big flood, when the water reached at least chin-high in this neighborhood; in some places, it rose above the women’s heads. In Dharavi, any heavy rainfall brings the contents of the open sewage gutters up into the streets and lanes. So in 2005, it was dangerously filthy water that filled the groundfloor homes. Disease spread through the neighborhood and city. Community taps, the only water supply at that time, were rendered nonfunctional, but with the monsoon going at full throttle the women were able to collect plenty of rainwater. Once the flood had receded to waist level, said Halema Sheik, she put a piece of plywood on top of her rain barrel and kept her kids sitting there for a couple of days while she stood half immersed in the flood. The sewage-laden waters didn’t recede for three days.


The typical home in Dharavi consists of a single room in a long, fully attached, two-story row among innumerable such rows—all built without sanction from city authorities. In many cases during the big flood, families fortunate enough to live in upper-story rooms gave shelter to lower-story families, but that was not always possible; after all, most homes were already packed to capacity even under normal conditions. Several women echoed the frustration of one who told us, “Nobody came to my rescue!” Another said, “The family living above me looked after some other people’s kids but not mine.” Complicating the situation, they all agreed, was that it was considered inadvisable ever to send young daughters to take refuge in others’ homes even during a disaster, because, they feared, sexual abuse could occur.

The impact of the flood persisted much longer than three days. Residents endured hassle after bureaucratic hassle. Those who had lost ration cards were unable to get replacements for at least two years. Without cards, they lost access not only to inexpensive foodstuffs but also to subsidized kerosene for their cookstoves; the fuel cost sixteen rupees per liter with a card and eighty without one. For two years, many had to cook over smoky, smelly coal, subjecting themselves and their families to potential respiratory damage because they could not afford nonsubsidized kerosene.

The 2005 flood was unique only because of its depth. The women were all too accustomed to dealing with routine monsoon misery, which one of them described as “four months of struggle every year.” That struggle was becoming more like a siege. Greater Mumbai, which by official count had experienced 27 extreme weather events between 1960 and 1969, saw 131 such events between 2000 and 2009. Dharavi has no storm drains, so even normal rainfall quickly fills the narrow streets and pathways. Some rooms lie below ground level, and in many areas water runs into every groundfloor room, through doorways and through the drain holes that are meant to let water out when washing the floor. During routine monsoon rains, everything between the buildings is hidden under brown water, so people often find themselves stepping or falling into the filthy gutters. The worst part, said the women we spoke with, is finding a place to go to the bathroom. The community toilet facility they would normally use—not too different from the type immortalized on-screen in Slumdog Millionaire—is flooded to over owing during much of the rainy season.

Trading safety, health, and normalcy for an affordable home and a chance to make a living is a story endlessly retold in the Dharavis of the world. In Mumbai, this one slum has come to be embraced in recent years as a perverse source of pride: Dharavi has been the focus of films, celebrity visits, and some fairly ludicrous gushing by the business media over its unregulated, microscale entrepreneurial spirit. “By 2010 Dharavi was a well-established symbol, and what it symbolized was the capitalist dream: a wonderland of innovation in which resourceful economic actors deftly evade the interference of an overbearing government,” wrote Daniel Brook in an analysis of this media trend. Not just Dharavi but slums around the world are being rediscovered as veritable Galt’s Gulches of scrappy ingenuity—particularly green ingenuity.

“Dharavi is greenest of all,” Brook wrote. “How so? Because they’re so desperately poor, Dharavi residents can’t afford polluting private automobiles or much in the way of disposable consumer goods. Instead, like decomposers at the bottom of a food chain, they survive by recycling the things that richer people throw away. Dharavi is home to some thirty thousand ragpickers, scavengers who find and sort recyclable scraps from the city’s garbage dumps.” A typical reporter from Britain found in Dharavi not only “one of the most inspiring economic models in Asia” but also “the green lung stopping Mumbai choking to death on its own waste.” What he didn’t see was evidence of the flood that had choked Dharavi residents to death less than two years before.

Dharavi may be the largest slum in the world, but its stories echo everywhere. A third of all city dwellers in the developing world live in slums, as defined by the United Nations. Here one or another type of hazard is typically just a part of the neighborhood. Disasters are “the fine print in the devil’s bargain of informal housing,” as Mike Davis put it in Planet of Slums. In his global survey, flooding is only one disaster risk that is combined in varying measure with many others, such as landslides and seismic risks. “Slums begin with bad geology,” Davis declares. Fire is a greater risk, too: “Slums, not Mediterranean brush or Australian eucalypti as claimed in some textbooks, are the world’s premier fire ecology.” The convergence of these and many other dangers is pure economics—if not a devil’s bargain, then certainly a bargain. “Squatters trade physical safety and public health for a few square meters of land and some security against eviction. They are the pioneer settlers of swamps, floodplains, volcano slopes, unstable hillsides, rubbish mountains, chemical dumps, railroad sidings, and desert fringes,” Davis writes. “Such sites are poverty’s niche in the ecology of the city.” And what they illustrate has implications far beyond the modern megalopolis.

If the city has an ecology, then these areas perform an ecosystem service. They absorb what others shed. The severity of a Mumbai slum’s drainage problem is in direct proportion to the success achieved by the good drainage systems in the “better” neighborhoods upstream. Where efficiency meets inefficiency, water stays. Like the swamps they often replace, slums are human wetlands that soak up water, pollution, and risk. The people who live in them are being celebrated in policy circles as powerhouses of resilience for a reason: like the wetlands of southern Louisiana, the mangroves of the Philippines’ Leyte Island, or the stands of Phragmites reeds on Staten Island, they have an ecological job to do, whether they like it or not.

Hard Slogging

Being flooded out in Mumbia, Kampala, Jakarta, or Asunción isn’t usually about the threat of death or injury; it’s about having to stay up all night bailing out your house and your neighbor’s house, and then digging out gutters and rebuilding embankments when it all dries out. The reality of both vulnerability and resilience often translates into never-ending uncompensated labor. This extends from rescue and reconstruction to the communicative labor that produces and sustains information flows, and on to the extra work generated when labor-saving natural resources can’t be utilized.

Such labor shadows the everyday economy, which not only draws on the precarious poor for its own workers but also feeds disruption back into the natural world—disruption that has to be absorbed. And demand for absorption is growing steadily. The IPCC forecast in 2014 that for the remainder of the century, climate change impacts would “slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and . . . create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger.” Writing in the language of economics but describing an ecological mosaic of labor, the IPCC announced, “Climate-change impacts are expected to exacerbate poverty in most developing countries and create new poverty pockets in countries with increasing inequality, in both developed and developing countries.” While these pockets and traps may sound like a crushing inevitability of the climate models, they’re not. They have a particular geography that is determined by the politics and economics of adaptation. The richest countries can (and do) fail to address their enclaves of risk, while the poorest countries can (and do) take action to smooth out the map of inequality.

The world’s most vulnerable places, even those slums that began with the worst of geology, can be made secure from disaster if, with backup from the rest of us, their communties manage to wrest economic and political power away from big business and bad government. It can happen if the residents themselves determine the fate of their own landscape—a place that, by necessity, they know in deepest detail. That may well mean leaving and allowing their land to revert to its original ecological function. But if they agree to that, they must first be assured access to another landscape, one that offers not only good ecology but good livelihoods as well.

Copyright © 2016 by Stan Cox and Paul Cox. This excerpt originally appeared in How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, from the Caribbean to Siberiapublished by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.