Thursday, May 30, 2024

Why Chennai drowned?

The phrase: “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari” never has had such a sinister implication.

The ongoing floods in Chennai are the worst in last decade. Nearly 200 have died. Hundreds of thousands have had to evacuate their homes. International airport has been shut down. Most of state’s main roads and highways are closed. Electricity is out. Thousands of paramilitary forces have been pressed into service.

And this is winter monsoon! Experts have rated it the heaviest in decades.

Last September, 200 people died in Srinagar floods. Nearly 13 lakh people were affected. Huts, cowsheds, houses—little were left standing. Carcasses of livestock were floating in what were once drawing rooms. It was the worst flood ever in J & K history.

And should we discuss the flashfloods of Kedarnath 2013 now? Did someone say Mumbai floods of 2005? Or floods in Delhi where thrice in last five years airport has gone under the water?

Brazen us must pay attention to Paris talks. For the moment, soak up this editorial in Economic and Political Weekly which has left me completely drenched.


“In the second week of November, flood-marooned people in Chennai had an unlikely Good Samaritan. The cab service provider, Ola.

“As the city struggled to come to terms with its highest rainfall in 10 years, the cab company pressed in boats from an aquatic adventure outfit and secured the services of professional rowers and fishworkers to ferry those stranded in waist-deep—sometimes even chest-deep—floodwaters. Some boats also supplied food and water free of cost.

“The sight may have taken old residents of the city to far less calamitous times when boats plied on the Adyar River. It may have evoked memories of the river’s channels—and other water bodies.

“Ironically, Chennai has lost most—if not all—of the waterbodies of old. Media reports quoting the National Institute of Disaster Management pointed out that Chennai had about 650 waterbodies, including lakes, ponds and storage tanks till about two decades ago; today it has less than 30. In the recent floods, the city paid a heavy price for this loss.

“A fundamental principle of hydrology says that whenever there is heavy rain, or a cyclone, natural waterbodies and interlinked drainage systems hold back some water, use that to replenish groundwater and release excess water into larger waterbodies— oceans and big rivers.

“Chennai’s planners and its real estate boom ignored this axiom. The Velachery area, one of the worst-affected by the floods, is a case in point. The area that derives its name from its abundant waterbodies—`eri’ means lake in Tamil—has seen a real estate boom in the last 15 years. A lot of it has come at the cost of lakes and waterbodies. Velachery today has Chennai’s largest mall, the Phoenix mall, that stands on what was once a lakebed.

“Chennai’s Master Plan 2026 does deliver some homilies to the city’s last waterbodies. But it shows little appreciation of their role as natural drainage. Why just Chennai. Most urban master plans betray such ignorance. In city after city, waterbodies have had to make way for real estate. So it is not surprising that most recent urban floods have become case studies of the perils of ignoring water courses.

“Last year’s floods in Srinagar, for example. A report by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment notes that in the past 100 years, more than 50% of Srinagar’s lakes, ponds and wetlands have been encroached upon for constructing buildings and roads. Real estate has taken over the banks of the Jhelum River, vastly reducing the river’s drainage capacity.

“As sites for real estate development, a city most often becomes a flat surface shorn of the demands of topography and hydrology.

“Mumbai authorities, for example, had very little inkling about the antecedents of the Mithi River till the disastrous floods of 2005. What was once a flowing river had been blocked at every corner; there were encroachments and constructions on the riverbed and where the river discharges into the sea. Research after the floods revealed that the width at the Mithi’s discharge point had narrowed to 40 metres in four decades. With every discharge point paved, the river could not flow into the sea and went into spate.

“In Delhi, the airport has gone under water three times in the past five monsoons. In September 2011, rainwater fl owed into the arrival halls of the airport, paralysing security checks and departure. And in 2013, passengers had to wade through knee-deep water to reach the terminal. Both the city and the airport authorities now concede that Delhi’s topography was ignored while planning for the airport. Waterlogging stalks the capital, monsoon after monsoon. A petition before the National Green Tribunal this year feared that most of the 200-odd natural storm water drains in the city could have fallen prey to real estate.

“The recent floods in parts of South India also show that the worst fears of climate scientists are coming true. Study after study—including reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—has warned of the vulnerability of Indian cities to climate change.

“The 2014 World Development Report of the World Bank says Mumbai remains vulnerable to rainfalls of the kind that led to the 2005 floods. Most Indian states do have disaster management programmes—including those for urban centres. But they are heavy on relief and rehabilitation. Disaster management is yet to find a place amongst the essentials of urban administration.

“It is also bedevilled by the corruption that plagues all other public works in the country. Media reports have it that in July last year a Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority engineer wrote a confession letter to his superior detailing how a multi-crore storm water drain project in Chennai was executed without concrete reinforcements or cement, but instead with “quarry dust.”

“In the past five years, Chennai has spent more than Rs 10,000 crores on building storm water drains. But opposition parties in Tamil Nadu have argued that these multi-crore storm water projects failed to deliver during the recent calamity. As a warning of sorts to town planners who are making grand plans for smart cities, Ponneri, a town near Chennai which is to be turned into one such city, received 370 mm rainfall the same weekend when Chennai went under water. That was some 130mm more than Chennai. Ponneri is a little less than 40 km to the north of Chennai. Still relatively underdeveloped, it escaped with much less damage. But have those holding smart city placards learnt any lessons?”

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