Why Chennai floods every year, and why no government will solve it

The best we hope for is better preparedness, and it’s never quite enough.

WrittenBy:Jayashree Arunachalam
Illustration of Tamil Nadu with a tumultuous sea and coconut trees blowing in the wind.

When the water recedes, leaving death and destruction in its wake, there’s only one question – why does Chennai flood, year after year, and why is nothing done about it?

When Cyclone Michaung hit Chennai on December 4, the state government claimed to be prepared. Over 160 relief camps were set up, the National Disaster Relief Force was deployed, emergency helpline numbers were circulated for everything from electricity to sewage to animal rescue to boats. Ministers were responsive on social media, organising rescues, oxygen cylinders and food. When trees toppled in the wind, corporation staff arrived soon after to clear them away.

Seventy-two hours after Cyclone Michaung moved towards Andhra Pradesh, parts of Chennai still don’t have power or mobile signal, and water lies stagnant inside and outside homes. And disasters don’t affect all equally – while the privileged move into hotels or pump water out of their living rooms, the poor are stranded or packed into relief camps. 

Seventeen people have died so far. Others are still calling for help.

Meanwhile, social media is inundated with photographs and videos of a sinkhole near late chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s house, cars being washed away in a posh apartment building in Pallikaranai, a crocodile crossing the road in Perungalathur, and actor Aamir Khan being rescued on a boat from Karapakkam. 

Importantly, Cyclone Michaung came along seven years to the day after the 2015 Chennai floods that left over 200 dead and submerged lakhs of homes. Since then, the city experienced widespread devastation with Cyclone Vardah in 2016 and, to a smaller degree, Cyclone Mandous in 2020 and floods in November 2021.

So, has Chennai learned no lessons? Is government apathy why we go underwater?

In an excellent interview with The News Minute, environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman described it thusly: “The disaster we are facing now is something they” – the present DMK government’s Chennai corporation – “have inherited. One thing they need to be careful about is whether they are in the process of contributing to future disasters. Which I would say they are.”

While there are stark differences between 2015 and today, the problem with Chennai is that it’s not a city that was intended to be lived in this way.  As a result, the natural disasters that strike are not natural at all, they’re entirely manmade. 

Chennai’s natural ecosystem comprises three rivers – the  Kosathalaiyar, Cooum and Adyar – and the manmade Buckingham Canal. As the city expanded, its water bodies – ponds, lakes, canals and streams – were drained for construction. 

Take the central Chennai hub of T Nagar, for example. Once upon a time, it was little more than a water body, part of the “Long Lake”. It was drained from top to tip, and a village – now T Nagar – was developed along the railway track. The railway remains and the road it runs along is called “Lake View”, though the lake is long gone. 

The rivers that remain are now the receptacles for 250 million litres of raw sewage every single day, with the unfortunate Buckingham Canal– which drains into the rivers – receiving the most. Government claims to have “plugged” all sewage flows are either too little, too late or a lie. The Cooum, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, is now India’s most polluted river. The city’s groundwater is toxic.

As writer Krupa Ge wrote in her book Rivers Remember on the 2015 floods, “the state seems to be on war with these water bodies”.

Simultaneously, construction expanded onto low-lying areas and wetlands. Land was cannibalised for luxury apartments and villas, sprawling IT parks, and factories. The city’s four reservoirs – Chembarambakkam, Red Hills, Cholavaram and Poondi – are now being encroached upon. The floodplains of rivers were taken over for construction projects.

So, when a city is built over a natural system that once drained water into the sea, and when a city is built along a coast that’s vulnerable to storms and cyclones – where can the water go?

Into stormwater drains, says the corporation. Built at a cost of Rs 4,000 crore, they “saved” Chennai during Cyclone Michaung, according to Chief Minister MK Stalin. But as Jayaraman said, these micro-drains eventually end up in the “mega-drain”, the sea and the rivers, that are already overwhelmed. They’re not the magic bullet they’re made out to be.

Environment and elections 

But ignoring environmental considerations is a bipartisan issue in India. Governments across the bar are equally enthusiastic and culpable. 

In 2011, despite warnings from experts, the secondary runway of the Chennai airport was built on the Adyar floodplains, with a bridge constructed over the river. When the Adyar river overflows, the water has nowhere to go but the airport. 

Now, the DMK government has announced a new airport at Parandur, which will lie on part of the Adyar river basin – something environmentalists have called a “recipe for disaster”. As reported by The New Indian Express, it will also obstruct the flow of a 43-km canal that fills 84 lakes before emptying into Chembarambakkam.

“It is an age-old and well-established irrigation network. If the government disturbs this, it will have a cascading impact both in terms of flooding and food security,” an environmentalist leading the protests told the newspaper.

But how much do these issues matter during elections?

In May 2016, the assembly election immediately after the 2015 floods, everyone invoked them. 

Prime Minister Modi addressed a rally in Chennai where he said the central government “was the first to stand by you”. It’s good to remember that the Press Information Bureau tweeted a photoshopped photo of Modi purportedly looking down at a flooded Chennai from an aeroplane window.

The DMK raised the floods as a massive election issue, calling it an “artificial” disaster. It especially flagged “mismanagement” in the release of excess water from Chembarambakkam lake into the already swollen Adyar river. The excessive flooding claimed lives and homes, and the DMK pointed to “bureaucratic delays” in releasing the water and poor communication with those living nearby.

During her campaign, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa promised to make Chennai “flood-free” though she refused to admit any failures on the part of her government. Her party lost the assembly polls, and the memories of the floods did play a role.

But environmental issues – especially when weighed against plans for urbanisation and industrialisation – are not sexy issues for parties. They barely featured in the manifestos for the five assembly polls that recently concluded, though the Congress did promise to make Hyderabad a “flood-free” city.

As for Chennai? The DMK is going ahead with its memorial to late DMK head K Karunanidhi – a Rs 81 crore “Pen Monument” that will stand in the Bay of Bengal, 360 metres from the coast. Fisherfolk, flora and fauna be damned. Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that Chennai and 11 other coastal cities in India could be “three feet underwater” by the end of the 21st century. And the city is likely to see more cyclones – and therefore floods – over time as a result of climate change.

It is inescapable that the quantity of rain that Chennai received – 415 mm in Meenambakkam and 390 mm in Nungambakkam from December 3 until 1.30 pm the following day – was prodigious. Even in a hypothetical scenario, where all stormwater drains and infrastructure were in place and working properly, the city would have been inundated. The fundamental issues arise from decades of wanton development and construction over floodplains and drainage channels. 

There is no realistic possibility that any government has the inclination or capacity to effect the kind of wholesale displacement that would be required to restore the ecological balance of the city. In such a case, the best we can hope for the next time Chennai experiences biblical rainfall is more preparedness in matters of relief – more boats, more rescue teams, more helicopters, and the like. 

And the cycle will continue. 

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