Urban Expansion in Flood-Prone Areas: A Growing Concern in India

India’s urban areas are experiencing increasingly frequent floods, causing significant damage to lives, livelihoods, and the economy. A recent study published in the Nature journal, led by the World Bank, reveals that the expansion of cities into flood-prone areas has worsened these risks. The study, based on satellite data, shows that human settlements in flood-prone areas have more than doubled since 1985. This underscores the urgent need to consider flood-related risks in urban planning.

The study found that East Asia has the highest rate of settlement expansion in flood-prone areas globally, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa and North America. It also revealed that middle-income countries, including India, have a higher concentration of urban settlements in flood-prone zones compared to low- and high-income countries. While India is not among the top 20 countries with the highest exposure to flood hazards, it ranks third in terms of contributing to global settlements located in flood-prone areas.

Experts in urban settlements emphasize that this study highlights the risks associated with unsustainable urbanization in India. Gautam Bhan, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, warns that India faces significant flood-related challenges that could worsen if not addressed properly. However, Raj Bhagat Palanichamy, a geoanalyst at WRI India, suggests that the study’s data may not provide sufficient details to assess flood-prone areas accurately.

Climate change exacerbates monsoons in India, resulting in more frequent floods. The expansion of cities into flood-prone areas worsens the situation. For instance, the rapid growth of Bengaluru has led to construction in low-lying and flood-prone regions, reducing the area available for rainfall to percolate into the soil and impeding water flow into canals. Informal settlements are particularly vulnerable to flooding, as they are often located in low-lying areas.

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Expanding urbanization into flood-prone areas is a problem that affects both the wealthy and the poor. Informal settlements, government structures, and unapproved colonies all face disproportionate risks due to their presence in flood-prone areas. Environmental regulation enforcement tends to focus more on large-scale developments rather than medium- and small-scale modifications in localities, neglecting the fact that flooding is a locality-level issue affecting various areas of a city equally.

To address these challenges, experts argue that scientific mapping of flood-prone areas is crucial for all cities. Additionally, better stormwater management plans, including the installation of stormwater drains, must be implemented in flood-prone regions. However, stormwater drains alone are not sufficient, and urban governments need to prioritize the resilience and protection of low-income housing. Solutions such as stilt houses, commonly used by riverside communities, can provide examples of how housing can be made more flood-resistant.

Overall, the study underscores the urgent need for sustainable urban planning in India and emphasizes the importance of considering flood-related risks in future urban expansion. India must prioritize adequate mapping of flood-prone areas, implement better stormwater management strategies, and protect low-income housing to mitigate the risks associated with frequent urban floods.

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