Thursday, 31 December 2015

Chennai floods: Need to take the 2015 lesson into the coming years

Murugan cleans my car in the mornings, and also that of many others in my apartments. I see him only on Saturdays, when he collects the key for cleaning the inside of my car. When the big floods came early this December, Murugan did not report to work for many days. That was not unusual, because many in Chennai could not travel to work during those deluged days.

He appeared more than a week later. Like everybody else in Chennai, he also had a story to tell. On Wednesday, 2 December morning at 3 a.m. his cot felt wet. He woke up to rising waters in his room. He came out without having time to collect any of his belongings. He sent his wife and four-year old child to her village by bus, and stayed in a rescue centre for the remaining days of the week.

When he recalled how the water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir flowing through the Adayar river took away his belongings, he repeated about losing his supply of rice, dal and salt, underlining how the water swept away even the most basic of his needs.

The New Year eve is muted in Chennai because of the floods
The November-December Chennai flood was in some way a great leveller. Usually in cities it is the poor and marginal that occupy the most marginal lands. And this usually happens in the banks of neglected waterways. The banks of Adayar river, which flooded with rain water and also the water from Chembarambakam reservoir is both a priced real estate and marginal land at the same time. 

If Murugan rented a room near Adayar river because of lower rents, the floodplains of the river also houses the richest and most powerful in the city. The picture that went viral on social media was of a leading industrialist being rescued from his Kotturpuram estate in a boat. Also, among those affected badly were senior government officials living in Manapakkam.

At least this made the disaster an inclusive one. Needless to say there was certain subaltern glee in the comments that followed the social media pictures of elderly industrialist and his wife in a fishing boat, or of the private jets that dashed against structures in the flooded airport. But more important, there was the consolation that the floods did not spare anybody, rich or poor.

This is of great importance at a practical level. Everybody in Chennai had felt the pain in some way or the other, and in that sense has a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen again.

The theme that keeps returning in all conversations in post-flood Chennai is fact that the Adayar river rose almost without any warning. It was not as if a cloudburst or a dam breach that caused the deluge in the river, but heavy rains from a low pressure condition which the residents of the city were aware of days in advance. And it was also not as if this was an isolated event. There had been copious rains from the first week of November, with very heavy showers in middle and later part of the month, and the reservoirs were getting filled to the brim. If excess water was released through the river in the interim period between the two events then the deluge and the cost to life and property could have been avoided.

Nature contributed the rains, but human decisions caused the deluge. There were three weather events back-to-back in November-December. They were not caused by climate change, and were caused by a combination of the El Nino effect and an Indian Ocean-specific movement of warmer currents towards the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu. This kind of event has happened before, and will happen again in future.

The linkage to climate change comes with the prognosis that there can be more such events in the future. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that there could be more extreme weather events in the future. The Tamil Nadu State Action Plan on Climate Change, on the other hand, predicts that though the number of cyclones may not increase they would increase in their intensity.

For those who went through the Chennai floods the linkage with climate change does not matter. For them the reality was that the water rose quickly, without warning, and in it they lost all their earnings and belongings. Some lost their family members to the rising waters. The insult to injury was when the administration opened the sluice gates of the reservoirs upstream of the city without adequate warning.

Weeks after the floods, the city is getting back to business as usual. A rather unusual advertisement was on the front page of newspapers a couple of days ago. A builder was making a mountain out of the molehill fact that his proposed apartments stood on ground that did not flood during the rains. We know how to make money out of every situation.

The city newspapers carry reports on the ongoing music festival. Even while we lose ourselves in the soulfully divine music of the Margazhi season, let us remember of the tens of thousands like Murugan for whom life changed that morning in early December. Move on we must, for that is what life is about, but let us at least ensure that we don’t walk into the same situation again.

Margazhi, Pongal and Deepavali, there will be enough reasons for us to celebrate. But let us not forget the lessons that this year’s rains taught us. If we do not put systems in place to ensure that what happened does not happen again, then we haven’t learnt from our lessons.

Let us not mistake our ability to cope with the floods as our resilience. That will be a costly mistake. We coped because we had to. Our lives, our livelihood is somehow linked to this city, and hence we coped. But building resilience is not about us as an individual or a community. It is about systems, protocols, delegation of authority and accountability. It is about being prepared, for the waters may rise again – when we have just about forgotten 2015.

Acceptance is the first step. Let us accept that we live in a flat, flood-prone city. Let us accept that we have not thought through our cleanliness and hygiene. Let us accept that we forget about our wastes as soon as we dump it in the bins, or around it, not realising that this itself comes back to cause diseases after the rains stop. Let us accept that we have messed up our tanks, lakes and marshlands, which could have otherwise served us as water balancing structures during heavy rains.

Let us also accept that we did not have a system to deal with the situation such as what happened a few weeks ago. And we never demanded that such a situation be put in place. Worse, if even after having lived through the floods we continue to avoid demanding for it, then let us accept that we are not willing to learn our lessons.

It will be a sufficient achievement if 2015 made us acknowledge and accept these inadequacies. When we hang new calendars on our flood-stained walls tomorrow, we can start with the process of ensuring that this does not happen again. Rains came in the past, and will come in the future. But at least we should avoid the impact of man-made consequences.

1 comment:

  1. The crucial thing lacking in Chennai and other cities is public demand for flood control. Glad you have mentioned that "Everybody in Chennai ................. has a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen again."

    Secondly, if the reservoirs are de-silted and deepened there will a solution both for drought and floods. Therefore, there is no need for the Telugu Ganga Canal or the expensive Reverse Osmosis Desalination plants. The government can actually save money.

    You have read my article on the Chennai floods of 2015. My main theme is that public opinion is vital. There is no copyright on the article and you are welcome to reproduce part or whole of it.