India: Don’t just blame climate change: Chennai floods were a manmade disaster

Nikita Sud, Associate Professor of Development Studies, University of Oxford
The Conversation 10 Dec 15;

The city of Chennai – a coastal metropolis of 8.7m people and capital of India’s Tamil Nadu region – has been flooded by an extreme weather event. The city experienced incessant rain, in what has been its wettest November for over a century: December 1 broke local records, with 490mm of rainfall.

The results have been catastrophic: the Adyar and Cooum rivers overflowed, 35 major lakes breached their banks and large parts of the city – including the international airport – were submerged. Schools and hospitals were shut down, electricity and electronic networks were unavailable for days, and life was turned upside down not just for residents, but also for flagship IT and automobile companies such as Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Cognizant, Yamaha, Renault Nissan and BMW India.

The confirmed death toll from the flooding is 270 and rising, and a trade body has estimated that monetary losses will be in the region of Indian Rupees 15,000 crores (£1.5 billion). While the flood waters have now receded, health epidemics ranging from malaria to cholera and typhoid may well be imminent.

It is widely believed that Chennai’s misery was brought on by climate change, and that such extreme weather events are going to increase in frequency and impact. World leaders have blamed the event on global warming, even as the COP21 climate change conference plays out as expected in Paris. As the climate battles rage in the natural and political worlds, Chennai represents the human dimensions of disaster.

The human hand

Climate change is not the only guilty party: the scale of the disaster at Chennai was magnified by a rampant disregard for town planning, and the basic principles of ecology and hydrology. To name just a few of the violations: the international airport is built on the floodplain of the Adyar river; the Mass Rapid Transit System sits atop the Buckingham Canal; the government allowed buildings to be erected over more than 273 hectares of the Pallikarni marshland to the south of the city; and the city’s famed Information Technology and Knowledge Corridors encompass wetlands and marshlands that would normally act as a sink for flood water.

Modern states have always used urban and infrastructure planning as a way to control and exploit nature’s more unruly tendencies: whether it’s water flowing down a river, waves battering the coast or food sources growing on the land or in the sea. There have been countless examples: from the colossal web of transport lines and ports built throughout colonial East Africa and South Asia, to the extensive damming of the Tennessee River System, which inspired similarly ambitious projects in the Mekong River Basin and the Narmada Valley.

Competition is king

But the planning distortions of contemporary Chennai show that the state can take it too far, especially when it is attempting to meet the demands of a growing population and a competitive economic climate. Since economic liberalisation in 1991, Tamil Nadu has competed with other sub-national units in India – as well as productive regions in neighbouring countries such as China – to attract private investment. In the words of a retired Tamil Nadu bureaucrat, whom I interviewed for my research in 2012:

Companies are like bridegrooms. If they are bringing an iconic brand into the [sub-national] state, they come with a huge list of demands, the primary one being land. In the case of [an automobile manufacturing company], we had large, vacant … plots, which we could transfer to them in a short period. In addition, they wanted road, rail and port access. They wanted to be near a metropolis. They wanted all sorts of social infrastructure, like land for an international school and sporting facilities for families of executives… Overall, there were 80-90 parameters related to land, tax concessions and clearances for water, electricity, etc.
With increasing competitive pressures on states, land and natural resources become pliable reserves for meeting the exacting demands of national and international capital. But recent events in Chennai are a reminder that nature is flexible only to a point. It does strike back.

Dodgy dealings

While governments work formally with private entities to change the face of our cities, there is also a great deal of informal development going on behind the scenes. Private firms, India’s booming real estate industry, and middle class consumers work with unregulated brokers, middlemen, government touts, moonlighting officials, political strongmen, and various other intermediaries to acquire and build on land. The government acknowledges that there are 150,000 illegal structures in the city, and that 300 tanks and lakes have simply been built over. The actual number of breaches is probably much higher.

Chennai is by no means the only city where space is more often allocated informally than through the “logic” of planning. Privatisation of the commons, filling of water bodies, encroachment on ecologically sensitive wetlands and the illegal alteration of maps to reflect these changes is evident in my field sites in east, west and south India. This is a translation of a quote from a Kolkata land broker, interviewed in 2014:

Changing a pond record is backdoor work, and this is totally illegal. Every time it is changed, it happens under the table. The government office will have to be managed. All buyers (e.g. real estate developers) have a setting arrangement in the government office, and they all have a civil lawyer…. Politics also plays a role in our work … if there is a pond to be filled politicians will not leave us. They will demand Indian Rupees 10 lakhs to 20 lakhs (£10,000 to £20,000)… Besides, how will you fill the pond? You need mud, sand, and ash. Organisations affiliated to the locally powerful political party will supply this.

As Chennai emerges from the water and takes a fresh look at itself, poorer residents and slum settlers will probably be the first to be evicted, in order to free up illegally acquired space for development. But if the city teaches us one lesson, it is that we are in this together. We are reaping what we have sowed as consumers, voters, home owners – not to mention the role of politicians, government officials and private companies. To pass the blame would be as shortsighted as world leaders blaming each other for climate change.

"We destroyed unique flood carriage systems"
B. KOLAPPAN The Hindu 9 Dec 15;

If only Chennai’s unique macro, medium and micro drainage systems had been effectively maintained, the people of this expanding metropolis would not be undergoing the misery caused by the historic floods. Professor S. Janakarajan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, who is an expert on water management and disaster risk reduction, agrees that Chennai’s current woes are the result of a “man-made disaster.”

According to him, the construction of storm water drainage system should have taken into consideration factors such as average rainfall during the north-east monsoon, which is around 780 mm. Since this was not done, these storm water drains have poor carrying capacity, which has further been reduced due to lack of maintenance.

Chennai can’t be seen in isolation, but together with Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram and Chengalpattu as these areas constitute a single important watershed. “The geographical location, topography, rainfall pattern and drainage system in these districts are hydrologically integrated,” he said adding that it was wrong to blame Chembarambakkam lake alone for the current flooding.

Calling for a holistic approach, Mr Janakaraja pointed out that as per the tank memoir prepared by the British, there are 3,600 tanks in these districts and the surplus from around 20 tanks have also contributed to inflow in Chembarambakkam.

Prof Janakarajan, who has made extensive studies about Chennai’s water bodies, said besides natural macro drainages like Adyar, Cooum, Kosasthaliyar and the man-made Buckingham canal, there are around eight medium drainage canals here. These include the Otteri Nallah, Virugambakkam / Arumbakkam canal, Kodungaiyur canal, Captain Cotton canal, Velachery canal, Veerangal Odai and Mambalam canal. These canals provided a very effective drainage system for the city before they were encroached.

The major rivers of Chennai are unique and had the huge flood carrying capacity. Currently they are reduced to half.

Prof Janakarajan indicated that the flood plains and wetlands of the city have very crucial hydrological functions such as to hold flood water, to prevent seawater intrusion and also to serve as a huge bird sanctuary. But these are encroached and remain in a pathetic state today. “Most of the IT companies and other major constructions on the Old Mahabalipuram Road are on flood plains and wetlands,” he pointed out.

Chennai could have avoided floods: CSE
The CSE director general said rampant construction across the city led to the blocking of natural flood discharge channels of the lakes
Business Standard 4 Dec 15;

The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said Chennai could have fared better if it had protected and preserved its natural water bodies and drainage channels.

CSE director general Sunita Narain in a statement said: “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 spillover. 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.”

It was further stated destruction of wetlands in Chennai is a major concern. Wetlands are rarely recorded under municipal land laws, so nobody knows about them. Planners see only land, not water and greedy builders take over.

"A number of cities including Chennai are both water-scarce as well as prone to flooding. Both problems are related – excessive construction, which leads to poor recharge of groundwater aquifers and blocking of natural drainage systems," says Sushmita Sengupta, deputy programme manager with CSE’s water team.

"While Chennai has been struggling to meet its water needs and has been even desalinating sea water at a huge expense, it allowed its aquifers to get depleted.”

CSE’s research shows that Chennai had more than 600 waterbodies in the 1980s, but a master plan published in 2008 said that only a fraction of the lakes could be found in a healthy condition.

CSE quoted the state’s Water Resources Department and said the area of 19 major lakes has shrunk from a total of 1,130 hectares (ha) in the 1980s to around 645 ha in the early 2000s, reducing their storage capacity. The drains that carry surplus water from tanks to other wetlands have also been encroached upon.

The analysis also shows that the stormwater drains constructed to drain flood waters are clogged and require immediate desiltation. Chennai has only 855 km of stormwater drains against 2,847 km of urban roads. Thus, even a marginally heavy rainfall causes havoc in the city.

However, Chennai’s human-made drainage is no replacement for its natural drainage systems.

A CSE analysis shows that there are natural canals and drains that directly connect the city with wetlands, waterbodies and rivers such as the Cooum and the Adyar that run through Chennai. The Cooum is supposed to collect surplus water from 75 tanks in its catchment area within the Chennai Metropolitan Area, while the Adyar is supposed to carry the surplus water of about 450 tanks in its catchment area and also from the Chembarambakkam tank (which is not in its catchment).

Chennai floods a wake-up call for India
SHASHI THAROOR Today Online 9 Dec 15;

Even as world leaders were meeting in Paris to address climate change, the city of Chennai (formerly Madras), the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, reeled under the onslaught of the heaviest rainfall in 104 years.

The city, home to five million people, has virtually shut down, with roads flooded and nearly 5,000 homes under water. More than 450 people have died. Air and rail services have been suspended, power and phone lines have been disrupted, and hospital patients are succumbing as life-support equipment fails. Victims had to be rescued in boats by India’s army and air force.

It is difficult to imagine India’s fourth-largest city — schools, colleges, IT companies, factories and commercial establishments — being brought to a halt. And yet, global automakers such as Ford, Daimler, BMW, and Renault took the unprecedented decision to halt production at their local factories.

The venerable Chennai newspaper The Hindu failed for the first time in 178 years to bring out a print edition, because its employees could not get to work (although it gamely produced an online issue).

Inevitably, many linked the flooding in Chennai to the talks in Paris, seeing the devastating rains as proof of the catastrophic consequences of human action on the world’s weather. More such disasters, they suggested, are inescapable unless world leaders in Paris take decisive action to limit global climate change.

“We are feeling climate change’s fast-growing impact now,” said India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pointing to Chennai and calling upon industrialised countries to do more to mitigate global warming.

Indeed, scientists predict that India will become significantly hotter over the next few decades, and therefore more prone to a range of weather-related calamities such as droughts, floods, crop failures, and cyclones. Chennai, they say, is just a warning.

But another factor arguably offers a more proximate explanation for what went wrong.


It is normal for India’s east coast around Chennai to suffer heavy monsoon rains at this time of year. And, although this is the most severe precipitation to hit the region since 1911, the flooding was also the result of human error: The irresponsible and unplanned urbanisation that has transformed India in recent decades.

In virtually every affected area, the flooding can be linked to ill-planned construction, which has taken place without regard to hydrology or Chennai’s natural ecosystems.

Norms set by the Environment Department of Tamil Nadu have largely been ignored, because politicians make common cause with builders in the name of development.

Drainage courses and catchments have been fair game for developers. Bypass roads and expressways have sprouted up without regard for data on water flow in the city.

The result has been rapid degradation of water bodies. Because construction has occurred with scant regard for the provision of adequate waste disposal and sewage systems, the city’s rivers and canals have become garbage dumps, so choked that they can no longer serve as effective conduits to channel rainwater to the sea. Likewise, the destruction of crucial wetlands and inadequate infrastructure to contain flooding means that rainwater runoff has nowhere to go.

The same phenomena can be found in dozens of Indian cities. Urbanisation is inevitable: An economy of 1.2 billion people cannot employ two-thirds of them in agriculture and hope to grow; rural people will inevitably move to cities to seek work and better lives.

India’s urban population has risen from 10 per cent at independence, less than seven decades ago, to almost 40 per cent today. It will not be long before a majority of Indians live in cities. But those cities cannot all grow the same way Chennai has.

Many Indian cities have a higher population density than Chennai, and a similar catastrophe in Kochi or Thiruvananthapuram could lead to much higher casualties. India needs to rethink its city drainage systems, rework its disaster-management institutions, and ensure that monsoon rainwater can drain out of its cities in the shortest possible time.

The Chennai tragedy is a wake-up call to India. The disaster could have been avoided if strict measures had been taken to preserve water bodies and respect environmental imperatives.

If India gets its priorities right, it will heed the lessons of this horror and create urban space only in environmentally sustainable ways. If Chennai is seen as a one-off event, an “act of God” rather than an error of man, further disasters will be unavoidable.

In line with the Modi government’s slogan, “Make in India”, the country is planning to build a hundred “smart cities” to bring high-tech growth to urban centres. But India’s cities must be smart in a low-tech sense, too.

The lesson of Chennai is that we cannot let more construction, urbanisation, and manufacturing erode our natural resilience to familiar monsoon weather events. “Make in India” must not become the unmaking of India.


Shashi Tharoor, a former United Nations under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is currently Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs and an MP for the Indian National Congress.

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