Despite frequent flooding risk, Kochi still lacks drainage master plan

With the rain pattern changing, efforts at containing Kochi’s urban flooding have repeatedly proven ineffective as unscientific stormwater drains are no match for the water that flows in.
Ernakulam MLA TJ Vinod, Kochi Mayor M Anilkumar and Ernakulam District Collector Renu Raj inspecting a canal on August 2
Ernakulam MLA TJ Vinod, Kochi Mayor M Anilkumar and Ernakulam District Collector Renu Raj inspecting a canal on August 2
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Everytime Kochi experiences heavy rains, the city’s arterial roads get flooded leading to traffic blocks. People have to wade through knee-deep water and critical assets including the main power substation and the transport bus stand face threat of inundation. On August 1, major roads in Kochi were waterlogged by 9am owing to heavy rains that began an hour earlier. It was the second such instance this year after May and happened despite the Kochi corporation completing its pre-Monsoon cleaning drive.

With the rain pattern changing, efforts at containing Kochi’s urban flooding have repeatedly proven ineffective as unscientific stormwater drains and the connecting canals are no match for the water that flows in. The tidal effects on the canal system also play a role in the risk of flooding. Any solution should involve ensuring uninterrupted water flow in Kochi’s network of canals, as well as designing and implementing an efficient drainage masterplan, which the city does not have till date.    

Did the Operation Breakthrough fail?

A report on Flood Mitigation in Kochi prepared by the Irrigation Department, Ernakulam, states that almost all of the coastal city’s canals were once broad and navigable. They allowed tidal water to rise and recede without flooding the land. Multiple encroachments, unscientific constructions and waste dumping have reduced their holding capacity, causing them to overflow during high tide. Operation Breakthrough, started in 2019 with the aim of rejuvenating Kochi’s canal network, has completed two phases so far. Three years later, residents and activists say benefits of the project are not visible.

Social activist Cheshire Tarzan attributes the poor results of the project to corruption and the absence of political will. “The initial phase of the project had showcased some good team work. But it was the political leadership in Kochi that derailed the project later on. Both the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) and the Cochin Corporation did not cooperate with the district administration for the project,” alleges Cheshire.

Shahid Ameen, a city resident who blogs on civic issues on the platform Urban Grouse, pointed out that the lakhs of rupees spent on Paramara Road, near the Ernakulam Town railway station, was money poured down the drain, quite literally. “Two years back, a new canal was built and slabs were placed here, as part of Operation Breakthrough. The road was completely flooded on Monday. Traffic movement came to a standstill and shops along the road were flooded. This is despite the government having spent lakhs here,” alleges Shahid. He blamed the stopgap measures that address only the immediate flooding for the recurrent floods.  

“Twelve crores were allocated under the Union Government’s Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) scheme for desilting and rejuvenating the TP canal. There is no clarity on what the money has been spent on thus far. It is a total scam and the canal is still blocked,” alleges Cheshire. A 2021 report on Flood Mitigation Kochi by the Irrigation Department states that the canal bed concreting undertaken in many natural canals by the Corporation under the AMRUT scheme will contribute to flooding. “This is also a clear violation of Central Water Commission orders. Such works undertaken by the Corporation need to be controlled,” the report said.

Unscientific drainage system

A 30-metre-long section on Power House Extension Road, near Shahid’s residence, is a regular site of flooding. “Here too, mitigation efforts have been taken, but to no effect. Residents of houses along this stretch were even forced to vacate their homes,” says Shahid. Kajal Salim, councillor of division 69, where the Power House Extension Road belongs, alleged that a private party had blocked the drains here. A coordinated effort between divisions 67, 68 and 73 that border division 69 is necessary to ensure uninterrupted water flow in the drains and canals in this area.

This year’s pre-Monsoon cleaning in division 69 was conducted only after the first rain of the season. Kochi Mayor had in an earlier interview attributed the delay to bypoll in April. Cheshire questioned this logic, saying “How does an election affect regular cleaning of the drains?” Only half the drains in division 69 have been cleaned this year, says Kajal. “This division is spread across a large area. Hence, there is a paucity of funds for cleaning all the drains. The other half was cleaned last year,” she clarified. This means that the drains here are cleaned only once in two years, despite being a regularly flood-hit area. “The Corporation is looking at increasing funds for divisions with larger areas. I expect this to be of help next year,” Kajal said.

Wastewater from houses, hotels and other establishments are directed to the drains, effectively clogging them. “Drains in Kochi are built with the singular purpose of stormwater drainage. Currently, most houses direct their sewage into them, leading to clogging. It becomes a larger menace when flats also follow suit. Routine checks by the Health Department are necessary to prevent this,” Kajal said. Blocking of drains by people to stop flooding due to tidal flows also complicates the issue. “People pile up sandbags and rocks to block drains where this happens, which in turn floods roads,” she added.    

Shahid alleges that all major canals in the city are blocked, the effects of which are compounded by the sheer lack of planning in constructing drains. Often, the drains are sloped against the direction of waterflow. “Something as basic as the slabs used to cover drains are examples of the thoughtless execution of projects,” he said.

Kajal says a major shortcoming is that drains for each division are designed separately. “Cleaning of drains is also carried out separately in each division. Unless the drains are all part of a single design and are cleaned in coordination across all divisions of the Corporation, stormwater drainage will remain a problem,” she said.  Kajal says contractors have informed her that several divisions under the Corporation have not cleaned their drains in years. The Corporation so far does not have any plan for an unified approach, she said.

Encroachment menace

The report by the Irrigation Department speaks about several encroachments of canal systems that were later regularised. Examples include the encroachment at Kumaranasan Nagar in Punchathodu, which was later regularised by revenue department and the Thevara-Perandoor Canal which has reduced in depth at many locations. Shahid feels evicting encroachments which have government authorisation would not be feasible. “Only a masterplan for drainage and rejuvenation of the city’s canals can offer any solution,” he said. The Mayor had informed that the Corporation was taking action against all encroachments. As a first step towards this, residents of P&T Colony situated on TP canal were to be relocated to Mundamveli soon by the GCDA. Shahid said that while this may take place, large encroachers with money power will remain unaffected.

The construction of the Kochi Metro under the Kochi Metro Rail Limited (KMRL) too has played a damaging role, according to Cheshire. “Several drains and canals near MG Road, Sahodaran Ayyappan Road, Elamkulam and JLN Stadium were blocked due to Metro construction. Major canals like Karanakodam Thodu and TP canal were closed off in places,” he alleged.

Missing: Citizens as stakeholders

In an earlier interview given to TNM, Mayor M Anilkumar had said that coordination between governmental departments in tackling the floods was no longer an issue in Kochi. Shahid had a different opinion on that matter. “A major shortcoming in the implementation of all flood mitigation projects is the lack of coordination,” he alleged. Shahid also lamented the absence of a forum in the city where residents and activists could express their concerns or put forward solutions to authorities. “Bangalore, for example, the NGO Jagratha coordinates with the Municipal Corporation to implement several projects. Such a forum is lacking in Kochi. Even though there are efforts among activists here to form a collective, there is no coordination with the government,” he said.       

Activists who take up such issues are often targeted, says Shahid. “One’s actions get branded as anti-development if the slightest flaw in the government’s projects is pointed out. Not even residents of affected neighbourhoods are willing to mark their protest, he says.

Long-term, sustainable solutions needed

A long-term vision for Kochi should also be mindful of the effects of climate change and impending sea level rise, says Shahid. “If the situation is not improved, Kochi will be uninhabitable for the next generation. What awaits us after the next 25 years is unpredictable,” he says. This urgency should be recognised and action plans developed accordingly. “Studies, including one by the National Institute of Oceanography, have established that Kochi faces the threat of coastal inundation. The inaction of authorities is not owing to the absence of scientific studies or lack of awareness. It is mere apathy. What lures them more is the scope for corruption in activities undertaken through the Disaster Management Act,” Cheshire alleged.

Regular cleaning of all drains and removal of encroachments will ensure that Kochi does not reel under the effects of annual flooding. Canals must be restored to their original widths, as per the old field measurement books. If there is political will, this can be achieved in the next three months, according to Cheshire. The Mayor, on his part, is waiting for detailed studies that are yet to begin for evolving a drainage master plan for the city. Cheshire however feels that time is running out. “Designing a masterplan for Kochi does not require a lot of study. It should be based on the simple logic that Kochi’s canal network needs to be restored to its original state,” he says.

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