Cowering Chennai fears flood fury

The megalopolis doesn’t seem to have learnt lessons from last year’s widespread devastation. Monsoons are approaching and residents are worried


Shivani Chaturvedi | July 25, 2016 | Chennai

#Chennai   #Monsoon   #Chennai Floods   #Floods   #Water  

It’s been seven months since swirling flood waters ravaged Chennai, and the painful 2015 memory is still afresh for Robertson. “It was the most horrific experience of my life. We are scared and hope that there is no repeat of such floods,” says Robertson, a resident of Madipakkam, one of the worst affected areas during the deluge of December last year.

“The local body has not done any work in our area since the last floods to ensure that such a situation does not arise again. We, the residents of Sadasiva Nagar in Madipakkam, handed over a letter to the Chennai corporation demanding storm water drains. The corporation [officials] said they don’t have funds. We approached the MLA. He said he would release money from the MLA local area development fund. We ran from one official to the other in the corporation to get the letter of approval for the work. Now the MLA needs to give the letter to the executive engineer and if the MLA provides fund in a month’s time, the work could be done,” he says.

Robertson has been living in Madipakkam since 1998. From 2005, he and his family along with other residents of this locality have been facing the water-logging problems during monsoons as there is no proper drainage system.

“We think if storm water drains are provided, the damage may not be to the extent that was caused during last year’s floods,” says Rajeshwari, another resident of Madipakkam. “The ruling AIADMK did not do any work to prevent floods last time. At least in the seven months since December, they should have taken proper measures,” she laments.

Even as Madipakkam residents aired their grievances, ‘Is Chennai prepared for monsoons?’ is the crucial question that hangs heavy.
A few senior officials in Chennai corporation and Public Works Department (PWD), not wishing to be named, say that not much work has been done to prevent floods and with just four months left for monsoons to set in, nothing much can be done now.

However, KS Kandasamy, deputy commissioner (works), Chennai corporation, says that the corporation has already issued tenders for desilting of storm water drains and the work has commenced. “We are constructing storm water drains for a length of 290 km across the areas such as Ambattur, Virugambakkam and Valasaravakkam,” says Kandasamy. The project is worth '1,100 crore.

By September end, 40 percent of the work would be completed and measures are being taken to clean blockage in bridges and culverts, he adds.

In addition, in 2014, about 350 locations were identified where water stagnation takes place every monsoon. For each of the locations, the corporation has designed a micro plan so as to ensure there is no water stagnation. “This time we have identified and fixed locations where boats and relief teams are to be stationed. Relief centres are ready. Our electrical department has been instructed to check street lights and switches to ensure there is no electrocution,” Kandasamy says.

He, however, admits that the government pays less attention to disasters. Residents are also not sensitised well. “Every situation is mitigable but our preparations certainly have some limitations,” he says candidly.

He adds, “We don’t get a clear picture from the meteorological department, like in which area how much rainfall would be there. We get raw information. If we get information on the quantum of rainfall we can calculate how much rain would go in lakes and accordingly can plan release of water. We should get interpreted data and not raw data especially for floods. Data should be such which is useful to us in getting ready.”

Experts believe it is too late to do much now, but they want a long-term strategy in place.

S Thirunavukkarasu, a retired PWD officer, believes that nothing can be done now to prevent floods. “There is 99.9 percent possibility of a repeat of floods. Even desilting won’t help much. Authorities are simply swindling money,” he says.

He explains that Chennai has a very good drainage system, with Buckingham canal as well as Adyar, Cooum and Kosasthalaiyar rivers. “But water should drain from one side to the other. All our development has been against the geological slope. The other problem is that there is no interdepartmental coordination,” he points out.

The government has no long-term planning. The second master-plan of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) is simply hopeless, he says and adds that it says nothing about preserving the water bodies. A lot of water bodies have already vanished, so surplus water that is expected to stay in these water bodies causes floods.

Tanks in river basins are having less capacity than it was having some 50 or 100 years ago. The loss in capacity may be around 30-35 percent in all the irrigational tanks. Because these tanks were created centuries ago, the holding capacity has been drastically reduced. This is one of the reasons for floods in the river basin as the tanks act as cushion against floods.

“The only thing is to leave alone the tanks that have already vanished. The existing tanks should be deepened to such a level to hold entire water coming from catchment [area]. There should not be surplus from any tank. All the water must be [collected] in the tanks and be kept for ground water recharge. Likewise, water coming from places away from Chennai as surplus should also be absorbed in the same tanks. If these things happen, there won’t be any problem for Chennai,” he suggests.

“In a city like Chennai, if we take the rainfall [figures] for six, seven or 10 years, we get more than 1,100 mm or 1,200 mm of rainfall. But it is not properly used. Had it been properly used, every drop of water would have been conserved some way or the other. Then there would not have been any problem for city residents.”

Then, the Chennai corporation’s storm water drains are not enough. There is no scientific approach in construction of storm water drains. Funds also appear to be a problem for the corporation.

“Even in the worst affected areas no work has been done. Now some '500 crore has been allocated by the government for desilting the waterways like Adyar, Cooum, and other small drains, which carry water to Buckingham canal and then to the sea. And for desilting storm water drains also, the government has allocated some amount,” says Thirunavukkarasu.

Jayaram Venkatesan, a city-based social activist, says, “We are bringing various experts together and seeking action from the government before monsoon. Social audits, representations, peaceful protests, public interest litigation – all these have to be carried out if we have to see some action before monsoon.” Citizens’ social audit of waterways was done early this month in some of the areas including

Villivakkam, Mugalivakkam, Pallikaranai, Pallavaram and Chrompet that were worst affected during last year’s floods. The condition of these waterways will be compiled into a report and the PWD and the government will be pressurised to take adequate action on these channels to prevent floods again.

On the preliminary research that Jayaram and his team did, he says, “We looked at different lakes that have shrunk over time. Ambattur lake has shrunk from 1,146 acre to 410 acre and Villivakkam lake has shrunk from 214 acres to 35 acres. Also, lakes are being filled up with sand. Sand from metro work is landing up in Villivakkam area. SIDCO Nagar was one of the most flooded areas. In the 1972 map of PWD, this entire area of 200 acres was a water body and now there are buildings all around. The remaining portion is also being filled with sand and that too after the 2015 floods. So, it means no lessons have been learnt from the disaster and we are doing more of what we did earlier and just worsening the situation.”

M Kaarmegam, former director of Centre for Water Resources, Anna University, says unless unabated encroachment is cleared such a situation would arise again. For example, below Vepery lake there was surplus water course, a stream, which has been completely encroached upon. The Chennai mass rapid transit system is being built mostly on the Buckingham canal, which is the main source to release water in the Bay of Bengal. At least further encroachment should be stopped. There were drainage courses, they are not available now and have been encroached. “We need to identify water courses and bring them back to the original shape, at least to the optimum
level. Once it is done they should be protected,” suggests Kaarmegam.

The city is expanding disproportionately and the trend continues. “At a seminar held in 1993, we predicted that with the present trend Chennai will float in 10 years,” he recalls.

M Chidambaram, a volunteer of city-based NGO Exnora International, says till now only repair of roads have been done after floods.
The government has not done enough and if it rains heavily, this time loss would be even heavier, says another Exnora volunteer, NV Ranganayakulu.

S Janakarajan, president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERS) too says that Chennai is not prepared for a heavy downpour.

Janakarajan explains that in order to understand the flood situation, it is even more important to have a comprehensive knowledge on the upstream and downstream watersheds, and ecology and rainfall pattern and characteristics of monsoons.

Chennai and two adjoining districts – Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram – primarily get rainfall through the northeast monsoon (October-December) and the annual average is around 1,300 mm. The character of northeast monsoon is such that it always brings heavy rainfall in a few days only through low pressure, depression and cyclones. Rainfall during the last 50 years has always been more than the state and national average.

“Flood occurred not because it poured heavily in Chennai, it comes from upstream. If we want to prevent such a disaster, we need to store water upstream,” he says.

There are 3,600 tanks in upstream, which is passes through the two neighbouring districts. “If we revamp and desilt it, we can store substantial quantity of water. We can reduce the fury of flood downstream,” he says.

Also, Chennai has a natural drainage system. In northern part is Kosasthalaiyar river, central is Cooum river and in the south is Adyar river. Cutting across all three rivers is Buckingham canal. “When we have such a good system how can floods occur? Since everything is encroached, river bed width has become narrow. The river’s carrying capacity is considerably reduced. We have not restored the carrying capacity of rivers, not restored tanks capacity,” he adds.

What could have been done immediately after the December floods?

In the citizens’ charter on Chennai floods 2015 released early this year, Janakarajan suggested some measures. The purpose of this citizens’ charter was to bring to the attention of key policymakers, political parties, and other stakeholders major issues and concerns relating to the Chennai floods 2015. The suggestions are:

Undertake a comprehensive survey of all water bodies, including temple tanks and irrigation tanks, in Chennai city, Chennai Metropolitan Area and in two adjoining districts of Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur, their present conditions, level of encroachments and level of siltation.
Study the elevation and undertake elevation mapping.

Map the rivers, streams and entire drainage system in this region.

Map the flood plains, catchment areas of rivers, streams and water bodies.

Map the low-lying areas and ecological hot spots in this region.

Undertake the simulation exercise of run-off during monsoon months with and without encroachments.

Map the population density and economic activity in the region.

Undertake a serious vulnerability analysis in the region with and without floods and with and without droughts.

Undertake a serious risk analysis in the region – with and without floods.

Since flood plains are hydrologically and ecologically very sensitive and productive, a survey of human encroachments in these areas should be done. All encroachments should be evicted immediately but the poor after eviction needs to be resettled and rehabilitated within 3 kms from their last place of domicile.

Most important, declare the entire region of Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts as ecologically important and sensitive and demarcate it as one mega watershed. Protect this region from all illegal encroachments in the water bodies and flood plains.
The measures are long-term but the monsoons are just round the corner, leaving Chennai residents concerned over what is in store for them this year.

(The article appears in the July 16-31, 2016 issue)



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