Megacities in developing countries face a chronic shortage of water, but they are seldom accustomed to dealing with the opposite. Mumbai, India's commercial capital, found itself in this situation on July 26, 2005 when it received 944 mm of rain in 24 hours, most of it in five hours. No city in the world would have been able to cope with such a deluge; when the metropolis in question has 55 per cent of its 14 million inhabitants living in slums, the catastrophe can well be imagined.
From coping with perennial shortages to coping with sudden surfeit is an unprecedented challenge. As is well documented, people living in eastern India and Bangladesh have for millennia learned to live with floods and have developed their own mechanisms. It is built into their culture - farming and even housing is adapted to these circumstances. But few in urban areas are prepared for such eventualities.
The deluge demonstrated how people react to diverse situations when it concerns water, how it is deeply ingrained in their culture. Although there are long queues at community taps and public toilets in Mumbai, there are established codes of conduct that ensure, for the most part, that people cooperate, rather than compete, with each other. Given the paucity of public toilets, as well as the lack of water to flush them, the seaside is widely used by the urban poor. But here as well, it is well known that certain areas of every beach are reserved for women so that they can relieve themselves with a modicum of decency.
It is, inevitably, a question of culture and the overwhelming imperative to build social networks. Despite possessing probably the largest number of slum dwellers in any city in the world, Mumbai's other half has always demonstrated its ability to survive despite all odds. Women get up at unearthly hours to collect water when the community taps function fitfully: they get to know by word of mouth and can 'reserve' their place by placing a pot in the queue. Slum dwellers have actually built homes along the massive pipes that carry water from the hinterland to Mumbai and often tap them illegally.
Mumbai's slum dwellers have learned to exist with minimal supplies of water for their daily needs. When thousands were marooned on 26/7, it took all their human resources to combat the situation. As a member of a Concerned Citizens' Commission which inquired into the causes and consequences of the flooding which took nearly 600 lives, this writer attended public hearings in the affected areas. An overwhelming recollection was the trauma that slum dwellers faced: because the water rose so rapidly, there was nothing anyone could do. As homemakers, women faced the brunt of the crisis.
It was only because slum dwellers have already developed highly intricate networks among themselves that so many were able to survive. Badrunissa, with a 13-day-old daughter, testified how "all helped - people carried my child in the water". Many slum dwellers found that the only refuge from the swirling water were madrassas (religious schools), where they sheltered for one or two nights and were even provided food. Juman Ali, a hutment dweller who lost everything, reported how his colony helped those who were stranded on rooftops - some from 3.30 pm on July 26 until 7 am the next day.
The combination of poverty, homelessness, persisting illnesses and loss of belongings contributed to a sense of hopelessness. Several women mentioned that they walked with difficulty and found it tedious to do housework. Some suffered from phobias regarding water, the very resource that, ironically enough, was hitherto so much in demand. All the same, the innate resilience which all slum dwellers possess came to the fore. When the commission visited far-flung suburbs, despite heavy rain during the hearings, women were trying to restore their lives as best they could, even in ramshackle temporary dwellings. They were in desperate circumstances, but were not defeated by it.
The contrast with the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans a few weeks later was remarkable. In that city, those worst affected, who were mostly black, abandoned their homes and were housed in a stadium where they simply stared listlessly into space, waiting to be evacuated. Many complained about the intolerable heat - they had always been insulated by air-conditioning. There was also widespread looting and rapes - both of which were conspicuous by their absence in Mumbai, despite much greater poverty. It was as if there was nothing they could do to cope in New Orleans.
At a public meeting in Mumbai to mark World Water Day 2006, addressed by Medha Patkar and other activists, a woman from a slum colony reminded the audience of some elementary facts: how it was difficult to maintain basic personal hygiene because water was so scarce. It was impossible to send their children to school in clean clothes simply because there was no water to wash them regularly. She contrasted this with the unlimited supplies that rich housing colonies received, even for swimming pools. If 26/7 caused widespread illnesses, including the dreaded leptospirosis, which is borne by rats, the ongoing shortage of water takes a very heavy toll on health. The mortality rate has been kept somewhat in check because women have maintained cleanliness despite everything.
Although flooding takes place in certain areas of Mumbai each monsoon, 26/7 was unprecedented. It brought out an often-forgotten facet of culture in this congested metropolis: the infinite capacity of people to help each other in times of distress, irrespective of caste or community. In his 'Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found', New York-based author Suketu Mehta illustrates this trait in commuters' readiness to stretch out their arms to protect a fellow passenger who is in danger of falling off a congested local train. The deluge brought out the very best in citizens, particularly the poorest.