SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary

I’m currently at the Bauhaus in Dessau Germany – part of workshop lead by Anurhada Mathur & Dilip da Cunha entitled Intense Landscapes: Rail Corridors as Energizing Spines (in India).

Bauhaus - Dessau

Anurhada Mathur & Dilip da Cunha also developed an exhibition/book called SOAK: Mumbai in an Estuary. Here is the SOAK website. An the description of the project. There are certainly similarities between Mumbai and Phnom Penh.

Until recently Mumbai was accustomed to being soaked by the monsoon. The rains of July 26, 2005, however did not soak the city; they flooded it.  Hundreds died and much property was lost as parts of Mumbai went under many feet of water. Those rains were unusual. The average for the whole season fell in a day – 944 mm. . . .However, it takes much less to flood Mumbai today. Three years on, 100 mm of rain or less is enough to cause a ‘flood’ and suggest that Mumbai is shifting from welcoming or abhorring a soak by the monsoon to fearing and fighting being flooded by it.

Soak to flood is a profound shift. It makes an enemy of a friend even if it is a friend who is not always welcome. . . . Awaiting the monsoon for better or worse is increasingly being replaced by a readying for battle. The build up to war has occurred on many fronts. . . . But it has occurred more pertinently, from our point of view, through the cultivation of an attitude to terrain grounded in the belief that land and water are separable. This attitude has encouraged a landscape of hard edges and clear and distinct entities, and fostered a spirit predisposed to privileging land over water, firmly held property lines over open terrains, defined land uses over fluid occupancies.

It takes a considerable effort to enforce firmness anywhere, but it is particularly difficult to do so in an estuary, the primary ecology of Mumbai. Unlike deltas where rivers reach into the sea, estuaries allow the sea in. As such the rise and fall of the sea is not restricted to a coastline but is carried inland on a gradient that takes with it not just predictable tidal levels but the complexities of the world’s oceans where the unexpected reaches beyond the horizon and often beyond control. Here the war against the monsoon is also a war against the sea. . . . If the monsoon has been cultivated as a seasonal opponent, the sea has been made a perennial one. Sea walls, landfills, causeways, tetrapods, knowledge and prediction have been used to keep the sea out. . . . The 2005 flood, however, stilled Mumbai long enough to take notice of the sea within land’s edge. It is an occurrence that can be expected to occur more often with the predicted rise in sea levels.

The Mithi is Mumbai’s poster child of the war against the monsoon and the sea. Few knew of its existence prior to the 2005 flood. Called a river by some and a sewer by others, maps show it to be fifteen or so kilometers long, running from the Vehar Reservoir in the hills of North Mumbai, beneath the runway of the international airport, between the ambitious Bandra-Kurla scheme and the famous ‘city within a city’ of Dharavi, to exit through Mahim Bay.

Whether as river or sewer the Mithi is singled out by engineers and the public as a primary cause of the 2005 flood because it failed to fulfill the dual role of a drain on the West Coast, namely, carrying monsoon waters out and accommodating the high tide of the Arabian Sea. Today, engineers are working to ‘master plan’ the Mithi, ‘training’ it with walls to conform as much to two lines on a map as to a channel on the ground, although it is intended that this channel be ‘landscaped’ to also satisfy a ‘recreational’ need.

It is an end-scenario that is questionable not only for its continued refusal to engage the landscapes of an estuary; it is also questionable by its own measures. The planned channel is far too small to carry the waters of another 944 mm rainfall which is deemed by engineers an event that is too expensive and improbable to accommodate both politically and financially given the size of the channel that it demands and the extent of settlement that it will displace.

An estuary demands gradients not walls, fluid occupancies not defined land uses, negotiated moments not hard edges. In short, it demands the accommodation of the sea not a war against it which continues to be fought by engineers and administrators as they carry sea walls inland in a bid to both, channel monsoon runoff and keep the sea out.

Soak is an appreciation of an aqueous terrain. It encourages designs that hold monsoon waters rather than channel them out to sea; that work with the gradient of an estuary; that accommodate uncertainty through resilience, not overcome it with prediction. It moves Mumbai out of the language of flood and the widely accepted trajectory of war with the sea and monsoon that this language perpetuates. It recovers the world of soak.

Soak, in brief, is about making peace with the sea; about designing with the monsoon in an estuary.

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