Urban planning in denial: Why Chennai gets unbearably flooded and what can be the solution

That Chennai’s waterlogging is now on the brink of being beyond redemption and is a man-made disaster can be illustrated by one fact: The city’s largest mall is on a lake-bed
Urban planning in denial: Why Chennai gets unbearably flooded and what can be the solution
Urban planning in denial: Why Chennai gets unbearably flooded and what can be the solution
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In 2015, Chennai received its highest rainfall in 10 years. Barring a few core areas, mostly neighbourhoods around Mount Road, all parts of the city saw massive waterlogging and flooding. According to figures from the TN police, about 189 people across the state have lost their lives due to the rains as of Wednesday.

What’s even more unfortunate, however, is the fact that the city’s waterlogging woes are here to stay. A tragedy like this could happen again under a similar situation a few years later, unless we change the way we plan the city, and acknowledge the fact that we are at fault.

That Chennai’s waterlogging issue is now on the brink of being beyond redemption and is a man-made disaster can be illustrated by one single fact: The city’s largest mall, Phoenix, is on a lake-bed – Velachery. The word ‘Ari’ (as in Velach-ari) means ‘lake’ in Tamil. And since natural lakes are meant to absorb and hold water when nature unleashes its fury, no surprise then that people in areas like Velachery and Madipakkam needed to be airlifted to safety.

Why exactly does waterlogging happen?

“Unplanned urban development and unwieldy growth with no hydrological plan is the reason,” says KP Subramanian, retired professor of Urban Engineering, Anna University. “If urban planners had done proactive hydrological planning, development should not have happened in many areas like Velachery, Madipakkam, Chitkapakkam, Tambaram,” he adds.

“It is serious interference with nature,” says urban planning expert and retired IAS officer MG Devasahayam, “the natural drainage systems are all gone.”

The Chennai area is historically water-starved, reason why several natural lake beds are parched when the rain is insufficient. But when there is heavy rain and cyclone, it is the natural lake and inter-linked drainage system which helps recharge the ground water, hold back some water and release the excess water into the ocean. The problem however is that we have built massive neighbourhoods right on these lakes and marshes like Pallikarnai, holding water back and flooding the new dwellings.

“Most of the Pallikarnai marsh has been parcelled off and given to the IT sector, no wonder houses in those areas are severely flooded now,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist based in Chennai.

Further, even as new areas are being developed, they are not being done so holistically. “Where will the water go if there are no storm-water drains? Roads and drains cannot be considered different aspects of planning and infrastructure development. And yet that is precisely what we do,” says Devasahayam.

And then, there is the omnipresent problem of corruption. In July 2014, a CMDA engineer reportedly wrote a letter on how his seniors executed a massive storm-water drain project without concrete reinforcement or cement.

CMDA’s urban planning: Living in denial

What’s worse is that we have not learned from the past and are still in denial about the problem. In 1976, Chennai saw a record 450mm of rainfall in a single day, almost twice what the highest rainfall was this year in a day. The year 2005 too saw rains past the 250mm water level in 24 hours. And yet, we have continued to build recklessly on lake-beds and river-beds.

There is no further proof required than the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority’s Chennai Master Plan 2026. As Ola operates boat services on the streets of Chennai, it’s comical to read the self-assuring claims government officials have made in the document, which is meant to lay the path to a better Chennai.

The ‘Conclusion’ part of the Macro-drainage section of the Master Plan reads, “Flooding in the CMA has become a recurring feature. During dry season, the City experiences acute water scarcity. Abundance of data is available on the macro drainage system. Thanks to numerous studies conducted, Chennai City River Conservation Project has added a new dimension to the system. With the coordinated efforts of Government agencies, involvement of stakeholders and with the application of modern technology for mapmaking and networking, it is earnestly hoped that flooding in the CMA will become a thing of the past.” Elsewhere, while discussing ‘Disaster Management’ in ‘Flood-Prone areas’, the document reads, “Existence of macro and micro drainage networks in Chennai Metropolitan Area facilitates draining of these areas within a reasonable time. Developments in such low lying areas are allowed only when a proposed development conforms to standards and after getting clearance from PWD on the measures to be taken to make it free from inundation.”

If one were to read the entire document, one would think the writers were in two minds, for they do seem to know the problems.

In the introductory chapter on macro-drainage system, the Master plan acknowledges that “Although several ameliorating measures have been implemented they have failed to provide total relief to Chennai citizens” and the reasons are threefold: waterways and flow channels are encroached upon with constructions, tanks have been developed into residential neighbourhoods and the geology in certain areas is not conducive for water infiltration.

Now geology, we cannot do much about. But having known the other two reasons, why does the CMDA allow newer residential areas in such places?

Chennai Master Plan showing the development plan for Pallikarnai marsh area

When you ask Nityanand Jayaraman, which are the sensitive areas that are being developed right now, he cannot stop rattling off names.

“Look at the southern stretch of the Buckingham Canal, from Adyar Creek to Kovalam. It is currently being encroached upon with new colleges and other constructions. This is the western side of ECR and eastern side of OMR. The stretch looks empty but is a seasonal water body. Kovalam creek is also being encroached upon,” he says.

“They are planning a smart city in Ponneri, which received 37cms of rainfall now. The plan there is to do exactly what causes flooding – encroach upon water bodies,” he says, “The CMDA’s master plan is the master problem, if we follow it, what happens in Velachery will happen in other areas.”

So what can we do about it? Just ‘bite really hard and bear it’?

We have come so far along in encroaching water bodies that it is now impossible to turn back. We cannot ask people living in Velachery or Pallikarnai to simply move out. So what should people there do?

“They can bite really hard and bear it,” says Jayaraman, “It’s not their fault, it is sad they have sunk in their last penny into those properties, but some damage cannot be undone.”

But that only means that some damage can be undone, and for that, we should simply stop doing what we have been doing for the past couple of decades, adds Jayaraman.

First, the Chennai Master Plan has to be reworked by the CMDA from a hydrological point of view, and it has to be followed. “A master plan is not just a piece of paper,” says Jayaraman.

Secondly, holding areas and storage plans should not be built upon. “Chennai and Chengalpettu have a large number of tanks. We have to use these tanks by connecting drains to them instead of building on them,” says Subramanian.

Thirdly, as Devasahayam says, storm-water drains have to be an integral part of laying roads. An area cannot be developed without proper roads or drains.

Urban planning expert Mark Selvaraj writes, “In the last five years, Chennai has spent 10,000 crore to build storm water drains. But construction of these drains should be based on proper hydrological calculation which was never done.”

Further, a major revamp of the city administration is required, say experts. “There is no concept of city government. Different organizations like PWD, water board and City Corporation are working under different ministries. We need a common authority to look after the city,” says Devasahayam.

“The city needs a separate agency which can plan, control and implement storm water drain projects, responsibilities now being shared by PWD and the corporation. A central planning agency should replace the CMDA in this regard,” writes Selvaraj.

Beyond all of this, there is one thing we cannot do without – accepting that this is a man-made problem. “Jayalalithaa’s comment that the government cannot do anything beyond rescue and relief during such times is vulgar. And we have to acknowledge that,” says Jayaraman.

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