Planning & Mitigation

Land Use and Natural Disasters

Natural phenomena are largely benevolent and are beneficial to society. However, at times these are of severe intensity and thus become hazardous. When societies fail to cope with hazards they turn into disasters. It is ironical that on one hand improved hazard monitoring, early warning system and disaster management practices have helped in mitigating adverse impact of hazards; on the other hand land use changes have turned hazards in to disasters.

It is interesting to note that land use change has been common factor in most of the recent natural disasters. Mangroves in the coastal regions used to provide natural barriers to strong winds and storm surge associated with land falling tropical cyclones. Cutting of mangroves for aquaculture in east coast removed natural barrier and in the process increased the severity of land falling cyclones during 1970s to 1990s. Thereafter, restoring of mangroves in some areas has helped in reducing the impact of the cyclones.

Mumbai of floods of July 26, 2005 is a classic case of land use contributing to major disaster where more than 1,000 lives were lost. Mangrove ecosystems, which existed along the Mithi River and Mahim Creek, were destroyed and replaced with haphazard construction.  Hundreds of acres of swamps of Mahim creek were reclaimed and put to use for construction by builders. Estimatedly, Mumbai lost about 40 per cent of its mangroves between 1995 and 2005 some to builders and some to encroachment and slums. The Bandra-Kurla complex was created by replacing such a swamp. Sewage and garbage dump also destroyed mangroves.

However, other cities and states learnt no lessons. Chennai floods of December 2015 and floods in Bengaluru and Hyderabad have once again shown that haphazard land use change has become a major contributor to disasters caused by natural hazards.

Major floods in Uttarakhand in 2014 and Kashmir have shown that land use change and unplanned development have been the real cause of large-scale disasters. Despite of this well-known fact, no major action to reclaim drainage system and remove encroachments has been initiated on ground but for a knee jerk reaction in Bengaluru.

Considering the nexus of builders with bureaucracy and politicians, restoring land use to its original state is going be very difficult task. However, some beginning is to be made by carrying out vulnerability analysis and attempting implementable remedial measures. Restoring water bodies, relocating slums  from flood prone areas,  removing encroachments, unclogging of existing drainage system and rainwater harvesting at the source are some of the measures which if implemented will help in mitigating natural disasters.

Though all these issues are part of governance, it is unfortunate that it becomes business as usual till the next disaster. In a country where no action takes place without sustained public/media pressure and court intervention, civil society should keep issue of sustainable and safer land use in the limelight by raising it at all forums.

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