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Chennai flood was a man-made disaster waiting to happen; here's why

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Chennai flood was a man-made disaster waiting to happen; here's why


Heavy rain has brought parts of Tamil Nadu to a halt. Schools and colleges have been shut across several districts. Parts of Chennai remain underwater after last week's rains. As the city bears the brunt of climate change and widespread flooding, CNBC-TV18’s Jude Sannith brings you a video with more details.

In less than a week since Chennai first flooded this year, between November 8 and 11, a red alert was issued for the city and neighbouring districts again on November 18. Another spell of heavy rain, the met department said, could be expected. Flooding was imminent. For the second time in ten days, Chennai had to take cover from the rain above and flood waters all around.

The fury of the Chennai rains were felt the greatest in T-Nagar. For most of last week, heavily flooded roads and waterlogged underpasses brought Chennai’s commercial hub to a grinding halt. The irony: barely two years ago, the Greater Chennai Corporation spent the last of Rs 200 on giving T-Nagar a facelift, as it was earmarked as a smart city.
It didn’t take more than one spell of heavy rain to give this locality a reality check. The civic authority now admits that course correction is on the cards.
‘Storm-water drains need more augmentation’
“The existing storm water drain infrastructure, as we have seen, requires more augmentation,” said Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Commissioner, Greater Chennai Corporation, “I would not like to comment on what has been done in the past by predecessors. But what I’d like to say is: we plan to augment the existing storm-water drain infrastructure.”
Bedi’s comments come just days after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin laid the blame on the AIADMK Government for not maintaining storm-water drainage in Chennai, which he said, led to the widespread flooding. The issue, after all, wasn’t restricted to T-Nagar alone. For days, several old-city neighbourhoods like West Mambalam, Kodambakkam bore the brunt of the deluge. Homes were flooded, with ground-level apartments and car parks going under.
In West Mambalam’s Vidya Shree Apartments, the residents’ welfare association managed to secure a water pump when heavy rains first hit on November 8. They spent the next few days pumping water out of their apartment — it rose to two feet before the pumping began, nearly damaging parked cars on the property.
“Since 7am yesterday, we have been continuously pumping water out,” said Shiva, a resident of the apartment complex, who we met on November 8. “We have been successful at pumping out almost 40 to 50 percent of the water,” he added, “Our house is built about three feet below the road level. So, water keeps stagnating when there is a heavy flood.”
Today, environmental and social activists have begun calling out city planners for their short-sightedness. The issue, they say, isn’t to do with building better storm-water drains, but to crack down on unchecked development on environmentally sensitive water bodies naturally tasked with draining the city off rainwater.
“Storm-water drains do not drain water into the sea — that’s the job of natural drains,” points out Nityanand Jayaraman, a well-known social and environmental activist, “When you have limited natural drains choked by development, building storm-water drains which will convey even more water that they can handle, and in turn mean you’re shifting the problem of flooding from one place to another.”
‘Stop construction on tidal water bodies’
Several fingers now point to unchecked industrial development along the environmentally sensitive Ennore Creek as a ticking time bomb. The creek, which fills up during heavy monsoonal showers is home to massive industrial developments like the NTPC thermal plant, HPCL and BPCL oil terminals to name a few.
These permissions, activists claim, have been granted owing to the creek being seen as a barren wasteland during non-monsoon months.
“Tidal water bodies and seasonal water bodies appear to be dry and useless for several months in a year. Even in that time it is being used by invisible people like grazers and fishers — people who don’t matter to our economy because they fall outside of capitalism,” Jayaraman adds, “And so these areas are then looked at as wastelands.”
He continues: “The only way we know to inject value is to allow modern capital to play, and modern capital plays by building. Our capitalist economy values built spaces, not open un-built spaces. For our resilience to natural shocks, open and un-built spaces are a must.”
On the other side of Chennai, recently developed neighbourhoods like Perumbakkam also saw flooding thanks to approvals being granted for residential development on low-lying catchment areas. In fact several hundreds of homes in Perumbakkam have been built in close proximity to the Perumbakkam Lake, in what was once a large, natural water basin.
‘Flooding in areas we never had flooding before,’ admits Chennai Corporation
Yet, the corporation is firm in its view that flooding in these parts occurred because their infrastructure simply wasn’t good enough.
“The city is expanding and the new areas are under strain because they don’t have the infrastructure that’s there in the older parts of the city,” says Bedi, “So, the new areas are prone to flooding if the infrastructure in terms of roads, culverts and storm-water drains are not appropriate.”
What then of the many old-city neighbourhoods that also saw flooding? “Even in existing areas, once the density of buildings and concreting of roads and pathways increases, coupled with encroachments, blocks the storm-water drain network, it leads to new challenges,” Bedi admits.
“This leads to flooding even in areas where we have never had flooding, before,” adds the commissioner, “In some parts of the city, new constructions led to stagnation and the corporation had to struggle.”
The admission is significant. What the Greater Chennai Corporation is admitting to is that rapid urbanization is indeed making Chennai a lot more flood prone, and this is not only in the case of newer townships and neighbourhoods.
The corporation has taken it upon itself to build walls around riverbeds and lakes so as to prevent encroachments. However, whether the civic authority will clamp down on approvals granted to developments in and around low-lying catchment areas like the Ennore Creek or Perumbakam Lake is yet to be seen.
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