Chennai highlights floods are a man-made urban disaster

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November 19, 2015

A boat plying in the Velachery area of South Chennai. Photo: ANI

November 19, 2015

A boat plying in the Velachery area of South Chennai. Photo: ANI

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU Over the past week, it seemed as if Chennai, the automobile hub of India, had entered a wormhole and gone back a century or two in time. The roads and subways where until recently BMWs and Audis rolled instead saw boats rescuing and ferrying stranded citizens, a sight reminiscent of the days when Chennai was no more than a tiny fishing village named Madraspattinam.

Until a few decades back, there used to be boat rides on the Adyar river; last week, boats made a comeback as a primary vehicle of transport on the city's roads that now resembled minor canals. People stranded in their houses in waist-deep, and occasionally chest high, water called out frantically for help amid the incessant rains.

Only, it didn’t just rain, it poured. For Tamil Nadu, the impact was so harsh, that everyone started praying for rain to stop. But the damage has been done, and a battered state is just limping back to normalcy.

While no official numbers are disclosed various reports stated that around 150-180 people have died, while thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes. To put that in perspective, that is more than the number of people killed in the Paris terror attacks.

In coastal areas, standing crops have been destroyed since the rain started a day after Deepavali.

Among the reasons being given for the flooding in Chennai is the volume of rainfall: during the first 24 hours of heavy rain, Chennai received 246.5 mm rainfall, breaking the record of November 2005 which saw 142.4 mm. The highest rainfall during the north-east monsoon was in November 1976, when the city recorded a rainfall of 452.4 mm.

But what has gone unnoticed is that the blame for the flooding must lie at the doors of film actors-turned-state administrators who have been ruling the state since late ‘70s and continues to do so even as they have miserably failed to create proper infrastructure for this booming city.

Almost every important subway and suburb has turned into a water body. Along with rainwater, sewage too entered homes. In many parts, the water level was five feet deep, particularly in the upscale southern suburbs, built on marshy land, where the lakes and swamps have overflowed.

Authorities had to use boats to move marooned residents to safer places, while the army was called on to evacuate people, an exercise that is still ongoing.

The only bright side to this, if one may call it that, is that almost every dams and water reservoir in the state is literally overflowing.

But that, too, is a man-made problem as the state, which fights with its neighbors every summer, literally begging for water, has failed to create proper storage, systems or infrastructure to save the water. Nor does it have any control over rampant real estate development, which has paved the way for the disaster that unfolded last week.

Major water bodies, including wet lands, have been encroached up and ‘reclaimed’ to build high-rises, affecting the flow of rainwater. In Velacherry and Taramani, two of the worst-affected areas in Chennai, whenever it rains for more than 2-3 days, the resultant flooding forces people to rely on boats.

Velachery, interestingly, is pronounced as Velach-ari: the ‘ari’ was added as this place used to have large number of lakes, or ‘ari’ in Tamil. Today, these lakes have turned into high-rise buildings, including residential flats and commercial complexes.

The city’s largest mall, Phoenix, sits on what used to be a lake-bed in Velachery.

The story is no different in the rest of the city, which lacks natural drainage and storage systems.

A report quoting National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM) report stated that about 650 water bodies, including big lakes, ponds and storage tank, have been destroyed in Chennai city alone and the current number stands at around 27. It added that the city has only 855 km of storm drains against 2,847 km of urban roads.

Similarly, the 400-kilometer long Buckingham Canal, built by the British for navigation, is another example of waterways-turned-drains. Experts says a failure to de-silt it and the lack of a plan for collecting rainwater is another reason for the floods, adding that it is high time to revive those drain-spots.

The forgotten fact is whenever there is heavy rain or a cyclone, it is the natural lakes and inter-linked drainage systems that help replenish groundwater, hold back some water and release the excess water into the ocean.

Over the past 30 years, nature has given enough warnings. It is high time for the state administration to wake up and learn some lessons from neighboring countries like Singapore on water management.


Courtesy: ANI

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