Delhi floods: Will urbanisation of Yamuna floodplains sink the capital?

Fatehpur Sikri was ruined by drought. The floods powered by unchecked urban development on Yamuna plains signal a similar doom for Delhi.

Published : Jul 31, 2023 18:53 IST - 4 MINS READ

A woman swims in the floodwaters of the swollen Yamuna river at Raj Ghat in New Delhi on July 15, 2023

A woman swims in the floodwaters of the swollen Yamuna river at Raj Ghat in New Delhi on July 15, 2023 | Photo Credit: Ravi Choudhary

Delhi recently experienced an unprecedented spell of rainfall for July, resulting in submerged traffic routes and disruptions to the lives of those residing near the Yamuna Floodplains. Among the heavily waterlogged areas was the underpass on the Ring Road near Nigambodh Ghat, once a railway bridge connecting the medieval Shahjahanabad’s Red Fort to Salimgarh Fort.

As the road filled with waist-deep rainwater, social media platforms were awash with artworks depicting a time when the Yamuna flowed through the historic Red Fort. However, the river eventually succumbed to urbanisation over the centuries, and this year, 2023, marked a significant rise in Yamuna’s water level, nearly resembling its historical levels during the Mughal era, albeit at the cost of the suffering of hundreds.

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Historians reveal that the Yamuna’s course might not have always been as we know it today. There remains a possibility that initially, the Yamuna did not flow eastwards but westwards before being captured by the Ganga. Nonetheless, concrete scientific evidence to support this theory remains elusive, despite indications from some research suggesting Yamuna’s connection to the mythical Sarasvati and its status as a tributary of the Indus.

While the exact course of the Yamuna throughout history remains uncertain, ample evidence suggests that it did capture several rivers that now serve as its tributaries. Geologists Amal Kar and Bimal Ghose discuss the former Drishadvati river system in the Indus basin, often associated with Sarasvati in ancient Hindu scriptures. Through remote sensing techniques, traces of this river system have been identified. The Yamuna captured several tributaries of Drishadvati, such as the Somb and Boli rivers flowing from the Shivalik hills. The reason behind this capture, as the article posits, lies in the typical phenomenon of streams carrying excessive sediment, causing the channel courses to become choked, leading to the opening of new channels.

When urbanisation meets political apathy

The Yamuna holds immense cultural and historical significance, being both a sacred river in Hinduism and a life-source that once sustained thriving empires. However, in recent decades, rapid urban development has repeatedly overlooked the importance of this natural resource. Consequently, flood situations like the recent one have become increasingly common as the waterbody faces contamination due to a confluence of urbanisation, political power plays, and restrictive legislation hindering necessary social action.

During a press conference on July 22, renowned water conservationist and Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient, Rajendra Singh, often referred to as the “Waterman of India”, highlighted how the recent flood situation in Delhi was entirely man-made and could have been easily avoided. Despite experiencing heavy rainfall before, the water level had never risen to such alarming heights. Singh, credited with the revival of several Yamuna tributaries in Rajasthan, provided valuable insights into the urbanisation of floodplains, the canal, and drainage systems of the river, and their direct link to the flood situation.

Singh criticised the modern-day scientist’s approach to handling such natural calamities, emphasising the need to adapt and find solutions rather than attempting to control the problem. He pointed out the existence of seven barrages on the Yamuna from Hathni Kund to Okhla, where engineers had informed the governments of Haryana, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh that opening the barrages could have saved Delhi. However, clearing the canals in the other States would have been necessary to prevent choking from flowing vegetation and debris. Singh questioned why proper arrangements were not made in the first place.

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Numerous developmental projects approved by the State in recent decades have neglected the encroachment upon Yamuna’s territory. In his battle to reclaim Yamuna’s land from the clutches of urbanisation, Singh approached the Supreme Court, arguing that even completed projects such as the Akshardham temple and the popular locality of Khel Gaon were built on Yamuna’s land. However, the Court dismissed his plea, ruling that land beyond the constructed embankment on Yamuna does not fall within the floodplain region.

The recent floods have highlighted the futility of attempting to control the natural course of the river through embankments. Reckless urbanisation of the floodplains calls for proper demarcation of blue, green, and red zones, rather than relying on arbitrary embankments. Singh aptly warned, “An erstwhile capital, Fatehpur Sikri, was devastated by a drought, and the current capital will be ruined by a flood, if proper measures are not taken.”

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