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Don’t Blame Nature, Chennai Floods Are A Man-Made Disaster

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By Sushmita Sengupta

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth

Chennai is a victim of man-made disaster. Its soil and rock types suggest that the city is historically a flood plain, says Chennai-based research Institute, Care Earth. The city is dotted with wetlands and natural channels where excess water from the city that is essentially a very flat area can be drained off.

down to earth chennaiCurrently, the city in Tamil Nadu is experiencing rains that have broken a record of about hundred years. With more rainfall in store, the city needs to relearn its water management system.

Heaps Of Problems

The city that is bordered by the sea in the east and the state of Andhra Pradesh in the north could grow only in the west and south. In 2000, southern Chennai became an information technology hub. In the process of expansion, the city engulfed several fishing and agricultural villages and hamlets, thus paving way for several ecological and environmental challenges that the administration could not tackle. By 2011, the city corporation area increased four times its original size, says a 2014 report by Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMS) has a size of 1,189 sq km and comprises of eight districts, including the Chennai city district. The population has increased from 5.8 million in 2001 to 8.9 million in 2011 in CMA. Industrial developments and establishments at Sholinganallur and Perugudi, Special Economic Zone (SEZ) at Ennore and Nadambakkam attracted many investors to Chennai. The city almost changed to a concrete jungle. The open areas decreased drastically and the built up and paved areas, according to an analyses by IISC, increased from 29.53 percent in 1991 to 64.4 percent in 2013.

The Problem Area

Image source: Twitter
Image source: Twitter

There has been total disconnect between hydrology and urban planning in the city that has been experiencing a drop in water table, with saline intrusion due to unplanned extraction of groundwater. Moreover, the groundwater is highly polluted due to unplanned solid waste dumping; the effluents leached from these solid heaps and contaminated the groundwater. The recharge structures like lakes, tanks, ponds and other wetlands in the city have been disregarded and the natural course of water has been tampered. This is one reason for urban flooding in the urban and peri-urban areas.

Fractured Flood Sink

The city has large marsh in the south (about 20 km south of the city centre), smaller satellite wetlands around it and large tract of pasture land. The southern marshland called Pallikarni marshland is known as the flood sink area of the city as it drained about 250 sq km of the city in the eighties. The marshland is housed in CMA. There were smaller wetlands around the marshland that served as a source of irrigation in the area that cultivated only paddy. The marshland that was around 5,000 hectares (ha) during independence got reduced to almost 600 ha around 2010-11. The only reason for all this was rapid urbanisation.

During this time, along with the marshland, all other wetlands of Chennai became sites of waste disposal, housing, commercial and industrial purposes. As the city expanded in the south, Pallikarni marsh became fragmented. As any other city, the state of Tamil Nadu only valued the land and not the water body which came to be treated as wasteland. The city found this marsh most suitable place for urban development. The area was allotted to the Mass Rapid Transport System of the Ministry of Railways, the National Institute of Ocean Technology, the Chennai Corporation, and the Centre for Wind Energy Technology. In 2002, a survey by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board showed that that the marsh lost around 90 percent of its original extent. This is also the year when the city observed a big flood event. The most affected areas were the adjoining areas around the marsh. Citizens started movement to save the marshland.

Change in the area of the Pallikarni marsh between 2003 and 2005
Segment 2003 2005
Garbage dump 50.25 ha 57.24 ha
Area impacted by garbage dumping/sewage 58.75 ha 132.25 ha
Northern segment 227 ha 150.56 ha
Southern segment 284 ha 279.65 ha
Source: Vencatesan, J, 2007, Protecting wetlands, Current Science

According to Sakthivel of Department of Geography, University of Madras, this marshland is also helpful in recharging the natural aquifer in the region. Sakthivel also explains that the groundwater in the marshland is highly polluted due to garbage dumping in the marshland area. For example, the most prominent Perungudi dump yard that spans over 75.22 ha is located on the north-eastern part of the marsh. The area of the dump yard has doubled over the last decade with an increase from 32 ha in 2002-03 to about 75 ha in 2013, according to Tamil Nadu State Land Use Research Board. The Board also shows that in addition to the sheer location of the dump yard within the wetland, the edge effect of the dump yard has been increasing from 2.34 ha in 2002, leading to a loss of 51 percent of the wetland. The research by Sakthivel shows that around 273.50 ha was allotted to different institutions by 2010. Over and above this, there are other allotments that made the total allotment area of 474 ha area already allotted or occupied.

Legal buildings on the marshland
Building Area occupied (ha)
Metropolitan Rapid Transport System (MRTS) 92.405
 Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI) 34.410
Ashram Latha Rajnikanth Trust 5
Tamil Nadu Agricultural Marketing Board 12.150
Dr. Ambedkar Law University 8.100
Judicial Academy 6.070
MMRD Road 200’ width 13.600
IIT, Chennai 17.810
National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) 20.250
Government Free Pattas 2
Land allotted for Ex-servicemen 61.675
Total 273.60
Source: Department of Geography, University of Madras

Can We Stop This Devastation?

The conversion of wetlands into lands for other purposes was very easy in the state until it amended the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act to prevent the conversion of wetlands for other purposes. Under this act, the permission of conversion of wetlands to other residential purposes is to be done by district collector and not the tehsildars, as before. But this did not stop the encroachment of the wetlands, say the citizens.

Too Late To Learn

Image source: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
Image source: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

The 2014 analyses of IISC showed that in just past four decades the urbanisation increased almost 20 times at the cost of open and green areas. The areas got converted to urban impervious surfaces that increase the runoff and create water logging in absence of proper drainage. The research suggested use of analytical studies of urban sprawl in the city of Chennai with the help of remote sensing data. D M Mahajan of University of Pune who had studied the effects of changed land use pattern of wetlands of Pune, Maharashtra, in 2014, said that a better understanding of aquatic ecosystem is needed to enable development of best management practices, thus transforming the way the land and water are being used. He also explained that rapid changes in habitat and land use are major threats to wetlands. This needs proper management plan for restoration of wetlands at landscape level. The unplanned urbanisation not only makes a city prone to urban flooding but also decreases its groundwater recharge. The researchers of Indian Institute of Roorkee in 2014 studied the effect of change of land use on groundwater recharge. They commented that proper planning and management is required for aquifer recharge. It further says that there is a need to understand the land use pattern in the past and present to understand the potential changes.

Professor Saswat Bandyopadhyay, Head of Department of Environmental Planning, Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University, Ahmedabad, says that the devastation occurred due to complete disrespect of basic urban planning and hydrological cycle. The city needs to rework its urban planning and the planners need to go back to their board and think of resilient planning along low-lying areas. The water channels that can be made encroachment-free should be restored at war footing. Around Rs 400 crore has already been pumped in for stormwater drainage network in the city under Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. But the high-intensity rainfall indicates that the design exercise of the drains has been messed up. The rain intensity was very high as compared to peak intense rainfall of last 30 years, based on which the diameter of the stormwater drains is calculated, says Bandyopadhyay. Hence, the drains are incapable to carry the runoff and the only saviour to such problems can be good urban planning along with hydrological understanding opines the planner.

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  1. RAVICHANDRAN VANCHINATHAN

    Now that the flood water that played havoc in the past fewdays, has started draining and Chennai is slowly limping back to normalcy, it is time for us to do the stock taking and have some introspection and retrospection. Though we experienced the record break rainfall in Chennai in 100 years,nevertheless we could have mitigated the fury of nature, had we exercised some restraint in expanding the city thoughtlessly . Though the expansion in Eastern and Northern side of Chennai which have Bay of Bengal and Andhra respectively, we were over ambitious ( rather greedy ) in developing the city by encroaching upon water bodies like river banks, lakes and marshy land which are meant for storing and absorbing surplus water. It is natural for the water to finds it's way to the low lying area. The conversion of Water Bodies in to dwelling place has happened only during the past 3-4 decades. Let us not indulge in blame game to divert the attention of people. Let us be realistic. It is the collectively responsibility of the Govt and we the People as well. The public failed to cooperate with the administration in maintaining the storm water drains. They littered the streets of Chennai with plastic and other garbages, which chocked the storm water drain and hindered the free flow of surplus water. No Govt has the guts and political will to evict the encroachments of water bodies. The Civic bodies failed to deny permission and take actions on the people who encroached water bodies. Even the handful of water bodies which are spared are not desilted and the inlets and outlets are not maintained properly. Nature has taught us the bitter lesson now. If we don't react and learn from this catastrophe, no power on Earth can save us. Having said that, it is high time we give a serious thought to the Proposal by the then CM of Tamil Nadu Shri. M.G.Ramachandran ,to shift the capital of Tamil Nadu to TRICHIRAPALLY ,which is in the central part of Tamil Nadu, while Chennai would continue to be the commercial capital. Let all political parties, set aside their differences and animosity for the sakeof the people and revisit this idea and free chennai from the hazards of over population.

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