Chennai is still struggling with the consequences of dramatic floods. The question is : is this a climate change issue or a bad town planning and management problem that could have been avoided?
Credited with many achievements and marvels, citizens of India’s populous southern state of Tamil Nadu are currently struggling to return to their normal lives after incessant rains and floods devastated its capital city Chennai and adjoining areas to shreds.
What is the impact so far? Chennai was marooned and looked liked an island. Over 280 people lost their lives to the calamity while 4.3 million people continue to battle the deluge of floods and sewage water that washed away their homes, valuables and lifelong earnings. There has been a complete transport breakdown coupled with power outage, snapping up of all communication lines. What is worse is the challenge of supplying essential commodities. Availability of drinking water, milk and vegetables has been scarce.
Many parts of India receive heavy rains or are flooded every year during the annual monsoon from June to September. However, southern India — Tamil Nadu in particular — receives northeast monsoon from October 1. Chennai received a rainfall of 1,506.9 mm, which is in excess of the city’s annual average rainfall of 1,468 mm. In November 2015, the precipitation was 1,197.3 mm, which was more than 1,088 mm, the highest in the century in 1918. At 490 mm, rainfall on December 1 was the highest in 100 years.
As the nightmare continued, local administration and national leaders woke up and deployed the National Disaster Response Force, Army, Navy and the Air Force. Thousands of volunteers were seen playing good Samaritans – saving lives and sharing shelter and food.
On December 3, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook an aerial survey of the flood-ravaged state. Modi promised 99 Million Pounds in relief.
Formalities aside, the important issue today is to understand the reasons behind these floods that caused such immense hardships to Chennaites. Is it alright to pass on the blame to the impact of climate change or was it a catastrophe waiting to happen?
A message for Chennai at COP21
Concerns over the Chennai floods were echoed at the global climate change summit thousands of miles away in the Paris suburb of Le Bourget, where diplomats and officials from over 190 countries were working on finalising a new global regime to tackle climate change. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the chair of the global negotiations, expressed his solidarity with Chennaites. “The unprecedented magnitude of the flooding confirms yet again that we no longer have time; we must take concrete and urgent action against climate disruption,” he said in a written statement.
While the outpour continued, those better placed fled to nearby Bangalore or distant Mumbai and Delhi, as other Chennaites faced what has been the worst misery of their life. India, however, seems unwilling to jump to any such conclusions. India’s Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar said that the excessive rains in Chennai were not on account of climate change though the United Nations’ climate science body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in its fifth assessment report that risks associated with extreme events will continue to increase as the global mean temperature rises.
Regardless, for a common man faced with such a life and death scenario, these questions are too academic to contend with. Chennai floods are undoubtedly a wake- up call for India’s growing obsession with unplanned development and urbanisation.
“The unprecedented deluge that the city has been subjected to is a reminder of increasing frequency of such freak weather events across the Indian sub-continent,” Centre for Science and Environment, a leading New Delhi-based environment think-tank, observed.
“We have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that our urban sprawls such as Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Srinagar etc. have not paid adequate attention to the natural water bodies that exist in them. In Chennai, each of its lakes has a natural flood discharge channel which drains the spill over. But we have built over many of these water bodies, blocking the smooth flow of water. We have forgotten the art of drainage. We only see land for buildings, not for water,” CSE director general Sunita Narain said.
Chennai, the first modern city built by British rule, then known as Chinnapattanam, has boomed into a centre of IT automation, business processing hub and vehicle floor shops for many of the multi-national giants from Europe, USA, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Such growth, however, has come at a cost as more than 150,000 illegal structures in the city have mushroomed.
If local media reports are to be believed, more than 300 tanks, canals and lakes have disappeared from Chennai over the past years. Other villains include plastics and garbage dumps that swamped the city following torrential rains.
“Clearly, indiscriminate development and shoddy urban planning have led to the floods in India’s fourth most populous city,” observed Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based writer and environment activist, in a write-up for the BBC.
With rains playing hide and seek, Chennaites may get some temporary relief. However, the biggest challenge after water levels subside will be to deal with the spread of epidemic, unless the local administration acts swiftly in cleaning the garbage and sewage.
B Govindarajan, a senior manager with a wealth management company is seething with anger on the conditions in Chennai as he moved his diabetic mother first to Bangalore and then Mumbai where his brother resides. “We can bribe officials and build high rise apartments in a marshland. We are paying the price for it”.
There hangs a wake up call for all of us. Is India listening?
Read more in our India&You (Jan-Feb 2016) Issue