Wondering why Chennai is suffering from flooding and drought? It’s the bad infrastructure, stupid

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No one denies that weather patterns around the world have become unpredictable due to climate change. But people add in the same breath that the flooding or drought in Chennai was largely man-made.

On December 30th, Chennai, like every other metro, was preparing for the start of the new year when it came to a nasty surprise: heavy downpours hit the city unexpectedly and many parts of the state capital witnessed flash floods. Traffic was thrown out of hand and three people, including a 14-year-old boy, were electrocuted.

A day later, Prime Minister MK Stalin wrote a letter to the Union’s Interior Minister, Amit Shah, asking for financial help to set up new early warning weather radars. The meteorology department was also surprised and embarrassedly agreed that they could not predict the event as the atmospheric build-up along the Chennai coast came suddenly and unexpectedly.

In early November, the state experienced widespread rainfall while a hurricane ravaged crops along the coast and disrupted the lives of ordinary people. Floods in Chennai invaded homes and the city literally floated for many days. In some areas, people had to rent boats to get out of their homes.

There were similar scenes in the city in 2015 when floods entered many houses. Even the city’s rich and famous have been rescued by civil protection volunteers. Compare that to Chennai in 2019, when the city faced unprecedented drinking water shortages. It almost seemed like Chennai was about to hit its own version of ‘Day Zero’ where there wouldn’t be a single drop of water to drink!

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What are the reasons that the state, and especially its capital, vacillates wildly between floods and water scarcity? While no one denies that weather patterns around the world have become unpredictable due to climate change, people add in one breath that the floods or droughts in Chennai were largely human-caused.

While Tamil Nadu is ahead of other countries in terms of social infrastructure and has good social indicators, some of which are comparable to western democracies, there is certainly a lack of urban infrastructure. Compared to many other metros such as Delhi, Mumbai or even Pune, the city lacks urban facilities.

The city certainly needs a modernization of its drainage system. Half of Chennai has no storm sewers. As it is a historical city, it has many monuments and buildings. The challenge for the city administration is to find a balancing act between the past and the present by creating a modern infrastructure while preserving the old. The city has not grown vertically compared to many other subways while urban transport needs to be improved.

There are proposals to enlarge the FSI area along the metro route so that the city grows vertically. Its civic institutions are in need of a drastic change. For example, some parts of the city still do not have tap water. Even where water is on tap, people still prefer to buy water in plastic cans because they don’t seem to trust the city’s supplies.

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The city does not yet have a gas supply through pipes. The city’s building code laws certainly need to be updated. In many places, local shops and apartment buildings sit next to each other. City traffic is slow and as the streets are narrow there are many one-way streets. All of this despite the fact that the city’s population growth is constant compared to other subways.

There can be many reasons why urban infrastructure has not improved. One could be corruption. The politician-official nexus in the state should be explored to find out what happens to the plans that are drawn on paper but rarely implemented. The civil service lacks imagination and requires a political boost. Urban observers say there is a lack of coordination between the different urban administrative units. The municipal corporations or corporations of the city have suffered for several years from having no elected representatives.

There is a certain political apathy in urban issues. Both Dravidian parties barely focused on the issue, although one has to agree that DMK was better than AIADMK. When Jayalalithaa was elected Prime Minister in 2001, she ordered an investigation into various flyovers built by the previous DMK administration, which delayed work in a number of locations.

When DMK came back to power, it made sure that some of these projects were completed. Between 2011 and 2021, when the AIADMK was in power, not many urban infrastructure projects appear to have been initiated. The backlog has increased the pressure on the city. Prime Minister MK Stalin has promised people that the city will be better prepared for the rains next year, but this is a big task as he has to start building capacity first.

Observers believe it could take decades for the city to repair its infrastructure as the problem is deep and widespread. This is because the construction mafia has invaded many traditional wetlands, bodies of water, and lakes. Local authorities have sanctioned many buildings and facilities in low-lying areas that were once natural waters.

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The city’s greenery has not improved and the rampant expansion within the city has blocked the pathways for natural water to get into the ground when it pours. The city simply has no capacity to store water when it rains. Most of the rainwater is drained into the sea. As a result, the natural aquifers dry up and it causes great hardship in poor monsoon years. During the scarcity of drinking water, for example, several farmers switched to selling water. They built deep wells in their fields and the pumped water was brought to the townspeople in tank trucks. As a result, the water table continued to drop.

Tamil Nadu welcomes the northeast monsoons that hit its coastline from November to December, when most parts of India are in winter. This is because the state gets very little rain during the north-west monsoons from June to August, the mainstay of the Indian monsoon system. It receives rain during the returning monsoons in the second half of the year.

Chennai needs to plan for its water management and flood protection. If the political class does not take the issue seriously, the city will continue to be in need, witnessing a cycle from light rains to heavy rains.


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