The recent images of the flooding in Chennai on social media were scary and show us how badly our cities are messed up. There were, of course, hundreds of images, as everyone turned newsmen and captured the agony and pain of hundreds of Chennaities on their mobile phones. The story that each picture, be it of students of Satyabama University coming out on a boat or of buses submerged in a subway, is one that screams, “You asked for it!”
Now let’s look at this rationally. The North East monsoon which brings rain to Chennai during the winter months is not always bountiful. In fact, weathermen agree that it is only once is ten years that Chennai gets enough rain to flood the city. The rest of time, people pray for rain as ground water levels deplete and water trucks whizz around delivering water to apartment complexes, villas and tenements.
But last week it was different. In the first 24 hours the city received 246 mm of rainfall breaking the 1976 record when Madras (as the city was called then) received 452 mm of rain. On November 23, however, Chennaities had a really raw deal. The rain came down in buckets and brought the city to its knees. Commutes which normally take about 25 minutes took hours, mainly because the roads were flooded and people panicked because of the rumours spread by social media that a lake had breached. At 8.30 pm, the rain gauge at Meenambakkam recorded 97 mm of rain and Nungambakkam recorded 92 mm.
Those of us who loved the city see what a mess Chennai has become and are saddened. Some years ago, at seminars, wise men pontificated of the dangers of building the Mass Rapid Transit System on the Buckingham Canal, of constructions on the Pallikaranai marshlands and of locating the Information Technology corridor on a water body. But the constructions continued nevertheless. Gated communities as well as special economic zones have come up in areas which should have been catchments areas. Temple tanks which refueled the ground water through centuries have been concreted. Tenements and apartment complexes have come up on the flood plains of the rivers.
Take the case of Ponneri, a small town located in the Chennai Metropolitan Area and one designated to be a Smart City. Ponneri received 370 mm of rain, almost 100 mm more than Chennai city. Construction is on going with no particular attention paid to drainage. Pulicat and Ennore are sad stories. The unique eco system with mangroves and intertidal zones will all be a thing of the past. Pulicat is also of historical value. But who cares?
Residents of Chennai have experienced real misery as every suburb and subway turned into waterways. A disastrous cocktail of sewerage and rain water entered homes bringing with it promises of deadly disease, snakes and scorpions. In many parts of South Chennai, the water was almost five feet in depth, especially those which have been constructed on marshes and swamps. Experts point out the Second Master Plan by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority has paid no attention to hydrology.
The National Institute of Disaster Management reports that in Chennai, 650 water bodies, which include lakes, ponds, and storage tanks, have been destroyed. Today, sadly, there are just 27 water bodies. The worst news is that the city has only 855 km of storm drains for the 2,847 km of roads.
Another tragedy is the fact that there is no storage infrastructure to harvest the rain water. What makes this a tragedy is that Tamil Nadu is drought prone and has an ongoing quarrel with neigbouring states for water.
The main cause, however, for the flooding has been the blatant disregard for ecology by the caucus of politicians, civil servants and developers. Swamps and wet lands such as Pallikarani have been reclaimed to accommodate high rise buildings. The case in point is of Taramani and Velachery, two areas which are waterlogged in the event of rain. Phoenix Mall, the largest mall in Chennai, is on a lake bed!
More alarm bells are ringing. The Chennai floods could be the consequence of climate change, opines one expert. If it is so there is a need to make, not just Chennai, but all our cities more resilient to climate change.
Now what is done is done, will the city planners please wake up.
Nina Varghese for IndiaProperty.com
Image: By McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons