DC debate: Don’t blame climate change, Chennai floods a man-made disaster

Published Dec 10, 2015, 1:19 pm IST
Updated Jan 10, 2016, 8:38 am IST
Severe drought and dry weather, always likely to come soon enough after the rains.
Army personnel using a rope to rescue people in a flooded locality in Chennai (Photo: PTI)
 Army personnel using a rope to rescue people in a flooded locality in Chennai (Photo: PTI)

Silt, sludge and CO2

S. Janakarajan Vs S. Elumalai



Chennai’s drainage in a poor state - S. Janakarajan

Chennai is inundated but the water is not potable. There’s no power or mobile connectivity. No newspapers. No essentials whatsoever. People have been dislocated and the damage to property and loss incurred is unaccountable. Daily wage earners have lost their jobs. Over 250 people have lost their lives. It is widely believed that a natural disaster such as the floods in Chennai lead to an inevitable loss of life and property. The rainfall in Chennai and adjoining districts this year has broken a hundred year record.

But should the magnitude of rainfall this year have come as a surprise? Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts are not unfamiliar to heavy rains and cyclones during the north-east monsoon months. Heavy rains during the month of November are a way of life for the people of coastal Tamil Nadu. Therefore, can it be called a disaster? If yes, appropriate preparedness could have been minimised it enormously. The most relevant question therefore is — what was the administrative preparedness for such disasters? What lessons have we learnt from the tsunami of 2004 and a series of cyclones experienced by the state recently?

For any city to survive the current disaster in Chennai, the fundamentals should be in place. In the present case, these fundamentals were bypassed and deviated from, i.e. the basic infrastructure, especially drainage. If that had been taken care of the state would have saved such a huge economic loss. This wasn’t the case with Chennai and so everyone suffered and paid for the establishment’s inefficiency. Isn’t this wrong?

Geographically, Chennai is actually placed very uniquely and it is a blessing. We have three waterways, something very few other places can boast of. We have the Cooum river which takes care of Central Chennai, the Adyar which caters to the south and Kosasthalaiyar running through the north. And then there is the Buckingham Canal which cuts across all three. It is the most fantastic macro drainage system for a city.

Unfortunately, these major drainage systems are in a pretty bad shape due to heavy encroachment, reduction of bed-width by more than two-thirds, heavily silt and sludge deposits and formation of heavy sand bars at the mouth of the rivers. In addition to these major drainage systems, there are medium drainage systems. At the moment, it is difficult to trace these medium canals. Indeed, most of Chennai’s prided IT corridor on old Mahabalipuram road is situated on the flood plains of Pallikaranai wetlands.

And finally, there are the storm water drains constructed by the government which are today heavily clogged because of garbage and so narrow that they cannot even manage if there is persistent rain of one centimetre every hour. Put together, all these networks comprehensively failed to carry water during the recent rains and that is why I state that the city’s most important “fundamentals” have failed.

The Chembarambakkam reservoir overflow is not the only reason for the flooding. Adyar river is fed by 25 other tanks. On the night of December 2, only 30,000 cusecs of water was released from Chembarambakkam, but near Saidapet the river was carrying over 50,000 cusecs. Still, it was less than the river’s original carrying capacity of 72,000 cusecs and much less to the flow of 60,000 cusecs in 2005. Then why was there so much damage this time around? Obviously because of the enormous scale of encroachments during the last 10 years. Isn’t Chennai a man-made disaster then?

Dr S. Janakarajan is a professorial consultant at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and president, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, Hyderabad

Do not blame the authorities - S. Elumalai

The floods in Chennai are certainly part of the larger changing weather patterns across the globe and similar to the Uttarakhand floods, and the floods in Orissa, Mumbai, Copenhagen and, more recently, the UK. This is due to the changing weather and climate patterns of the northern hemisphere, largely due to “developmental activities” undertaken by industrial countries. In the pre-industrial era, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was only about 240 ppm. But at present, it is at 350-400 ppm. Thus the increase in global temperatures.

This rise in temperature is because of larger industrial activity like construction, automobile emissions, thermal power stations, cement industries, glass industries, etc., especially in developed countries. Rapid industrial activity has contributed to the global rise in temperatures, which has resulted in the melting of ice in the Earth’s polar regions. And finally, the mismatch between the evaporation and precipitation rates of water in the atmosphere leads to so numerous many complexities visible in the form of climate change.

Post the industrial revolution the atmospheric temperature is increasing day by day and, consequently, oceanic evaporation and precipitation rates are increasing, leading to heavy rains and floods, or severe drought. This will also result in the increase of flies, insects, weeds, reptiles, mosquitoes and other unwanted components of the ecosystem, something we see in abundance in Chennai today.

Severe drought and dry weather, always likely to come soon enough after the rains, will be seen. The consequences will be water scarcity, which is as capable of causing untold harm as excess of water, though a deluge makes for more compelling visuals in newspapers and on television. We need to restrict our industrial, automobile, thermal power and urban expansion activities if we are to make any difference to our atmosphere. Only if we preserve our forests, our treasured flaura and fauna can we hope to bring the planet’s climate back to sustainable levels.

What we are facing today are the consequences of thermal power generation, cement industries, glass, paper industries, port, road, mining, deforestation, reverse coastal management with tourism activities, rapid urbanisation, slum dwellers, population explosion, hydrocarbon industries, unscientific agricultural practices, household instruments and equipments and unscientific waste management, etc. Unless we rein in some of them, there is no way to control the  change in the atmosphere. Chennai floods are not exactly a man-made calamity but part of this global phenomenon.

It is not a localised problem as many argue it to be. Countries like the US and China most of Europe are the major contributors to global warming through gaseous emissions like Co2, Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides. This has resulted in a sharp rise in temperatures and we should not blame state and national governments for it.
Developed countries are exploiting the natural resources of developing countries in Asia to produce commodities consumed in quantities disproportionate to the finite volume of our planet’s resources. Despite this knowledge developed countries are not responding to international agreements and protocols on global warming generously enough.
Irrespective of what city administrations do, these extreme weather patterns will continue to cause havoc in cities like Chennai and the world.

Dr S. Elumalai is professor and head, department of biotechnology, University of Madras