Home Green Mumbai should ‘drastically cut back’ on billboards, Indian author says after storm disaster

Mumbai should ‘drastically cut back’ on billboards, Indian author says after storm disaster

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Mumbai should ‘drastically cut back’ on billboards, Indian author says after storm disaster

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Cyclones are getting more frequent in the mega city, and the built environment is making matters far worse.

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At least 14 people were killed and dozens more injured when a giant billboard collapsed during an intense storm in the Indian city of Mumbai on Monday.

The oversized billboard, measuring 37 by 37 metres according to local reports, fell backwards onto a gas station in Ghatkopar suburb, crushing several parked cars.

A police investigation has been launched into the incident, with officials telling the Press Trust India (PTI) that the billboard was illegally installed.

Inquiries are ongoing, but the tragedy also highlights the vulnerability of this populous coastal city to storms made fiercer by climate change.

As he pointed out on X yesterday, Indian author Amitav Ghosh foresaw how deadly Mumbai’s many billboards could turn in the event of a cyclone.

In his 2016 book on climate change and literature, The Great Derangement, Ghosh envisaged how “cyclone-force winds will turn […] the thousands of billboards that encrust the city, into deadly projectiles.”

“The recent storm was nowhere near as damaging as a major cyclone would be,”’ he posted yesterday. “Mumbai really needs to cut back drastically on billboards.”

Are Mumbai storms getting worse because of climate change?

Monday’s dust storm and heavy rainfall arrived before the usual monsoon season, from June to September, when India is typically prone to severe flooding.

It wreaked havoc in other parts of the city, too, ripping up trees and bringing a metal tower crashing down on cars in Wadala East suburb. Residents suffered power cuts, and several flights were suspended from the city’s international airport.

Though it’s too early to determine what role climate change played exactly in the sudden storm, there’s no doubt that the crisis is making storms more likely and damaging.

The Arabian Sea, on which Mumbai sits, warmed by 2°C from 1982 to 2019 to reach around 28°C. This is hot enough for cyclones to form, a recent study explains, and there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of cyclones that have brewed over the sea in the past 40 years.

Mumbai hasn’t been struck by a severe cyclone in over 70 years. In this time its population has soared to more than 21 million. If a category 4 or 5 storm were to hit the city – with wind speeds of over 240 kilometres per hour, compared to Monday’s top speeds of around 60 kph – experts fear the loss of life would be catastrophic.

This is the scenario that Ghosh imagined in The Great Derangement.

Why is Mumbai so vulnerable to storms?

As Mumbai has grown into a megacity, the built environment has also risen up – smothering the estuarine ecosystem’s ability to respond to extreme weather events.

Natural drainage channels have turned to “filth-clogged ditches” Ghosh writes, old waterways have had their carrying capacity severely diminished, and swamplands or mangroves that once absorbed downpours have been lost as the city has spread.

While deluges in 2005 and 2015 impacted people living in low-lying areas the worst, the impact of a category 4 or 5 cyclone would be unsparing, he adds – and likely worse for those living higher up.

“Many of Mumbai’s tall buildings have large glass windows; few, if any, are reinforced. In a cyclone these expanses of glass will have to withstand, not just hurricane strength winds, but also flying debris.”

As well as the city’s countless large billboards, the metal sheet roofs that cover dwellings in the city’s informal settlements could be turned into deadly projectiles.

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