After a major flood, this Indian city decided it would not allow itself to become a disaster statistic once again.

SURAT, India—Walk around Surat, the diamond capital of India, and it is impossible not to notice “HFL 8.8.2006” scrawled on many walls. The inscription stands for “high flood level,” where rising waters peaked on August 8, 2006 during a devastating flood.

Flooding is nothing new in Surat, a city of 5 million situated along the Tapi River on the west coast of India. In the past 100 years, Surat has experienced some 20 floods. But the 2006 flood was unusually destructive, killing more than 120 people, stranding tens of thousands in their homes without food or electricity and closing businesses and schools for weeks.

It was also largely preventable.

Walls around Surat are inscribed with markings to show how high flood waters reached in 2006.
Walls around Surat are inscribed with markings to show how high flood waters reached in 2006. © Patralekha Chatterjee - Surat has shown the way in many respects, but challenges loom. Social cohesion is important for a city rebound after a crisis—and the Surat model shows the importance of many factions of society, business and government coming together in solidarity. But the recent violence that has rocked Surat and other cities in Gujarat suggest there are cracks in the unity. Members of the influential Patel community are demanding special reservations in government jobs and in schools and colleges. They have clashed with the police and other residents. Buses have been burned, shops looted, people killed and injured. Surat has proved that it can bounce back from terrible crises. One hopes that this time too, it will prove resilient.

About 100 kilometers (60 miles) upstream from Surat, water from heavy rains built up behind the Ukai Dam. Rather than releasing the water gradually, the dam’s managers unleashed a deluge all at once, submerging large swathes of this industrial city underwater with little notice. The Gujarat state government preferred to call the floods a natural disaster but citizens’ committees who looked into the matter had a different story to tell. They concluded that the havoc was largely the result of mismanagement of the dam operations and that its impact could have been reduced.

Akash Acharya, an academic working in the Centre for Social Studies in Surat who co-authored “Surat 2006 Floods: A Citizens’ Report,” has vivid memories of the devastation. “We were living in the Centre for Social Studies campus when the flood waters gushed in,” Acharya recalls. “We rushed to the terrace. There was no power. One of our greatest feats was saving the books in the library. We managed to remove all of them from the lowest racks.” Talking of mismanagement at the dam, Acharya says: “There is a rule book, but rules about the release of dam water were not followed.”

Yet today, Acharya, like many others in the city, feels that Surat is more prepared now than ever to deal with flooding. Thanks to a number of recent initiatives—and new protocols at the dam—heavy rains in the past few years have not brought the usual inundations. It’s a similar story to how the city bounced back from a horrific plague in 1994 and emerged as a public-health model. With flooding, Surat decided it would not allow itself to become a disaster statistic once again.

How that happened is a story of partnerships and will power...