North Chennai’s floods and its human cost remain unchanged after every rain

Though the Chennai Corporation managed to remove excess water in North Chennai streets over two days, these areas were flooded again the next day following incessant rains and strong winds.
Roads of north Chennai getting flooded
Roads of north Chennai getting flooded
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“My life is completely altered during rainfall, every year,” said 73-year-old Victoria as she sat dejected at a relief camp that was about five kilometres away from her house at Doss Nagar in North Chennai’s Pulianthope. “Once the house gets flooded, I am asked to move out, and I have to leave everything behind. Imagine living a life like this… but this is the reality that the people here and I am forced to put up with every year,” she said.

Like Victoria’s neighbourhood in Doss Nagar, other areas in North Chennai, too, have been flooded since Sunday, November 7 — Periyar Nagar, Motilal Nehru Street, Old Washermenpet, Periamet and Vyasarpadi. When TNM visited parts of North Chennai on Monday, November 8, the Periamet Road was completely inundated, causing severe traffic congestion as well. The Greater Chennai Corporation has been hard at work since then to pump out the floodwater. However, when TNM revisited some of these areas on Thursday, November 11, houses and roads in the North Chennai region were still submerged. The incessant rains and strong wind trounced the civic body’s effort to remove the water.

“The roof of my house has been leaky since Sunday morning, and with continuous rains, the situation only worsened. By Monday evening and Tuesday, the water in my street was drained out. However, not for long. The rainfall on Wednesday caused severe flooding, once again,” recalled 65-year-old Rajambal, a resident of Motilal Nehru Street in Pulianthope, who was forced to move into the relief camp at a government high school in the area on Sunday evening. She has been there since then.

“I had to leave behind my belongings in my flooded house,” said Rajambal. “And I am slowly giving up my hopes of seeing better days ahead,” added Victoria. 

The plight of residents like Victoria and Rajambal is the human cost of poor urban planning, the government officials not acting on requests of residents and failing to take proactive measures before the 2021 rainfall. Over several years, many residents of North Chennai, which is one of the worst flood-affected regions every year, have been allegedly urging the Corporation officials for better infrastructure, including a functional drainage system.

When TNM visited the relief camp, elderly women were seen sleeping and talking to each other in a dark room, because of the power outage. The men, meanwhile, were standing outside the camp, holding umbrellas, waiting for relief materials and food. They were not worried about food, water, electricity or other necessities during the rainfall. “We get all that. But, what we really need is better drainage facilities, which will ensure there is no waterlogging every time it rains. We also expect better housing and roads, which will not force us out of our own homes during such calamities,” said Jagadeesh, a resident of Pulianthope.

“North Chennai regions witness frequent power outages during rains. While a few areas in Pulianthope and nearby areas get power supply within a few hours, people in other places have to complain for more than two days to get the power back,” said Gurunathan, a resident of Periyar Nagar.

Why no respite

According to several residents whom TNM spoke to, with each passing year, the flooding and aftermath of the disaster have remained the same, and there has been no improvement. Several experts alleged encroachments and mismanagement by Chennai Corporations over the years.

The Chennai Corporation has been heading the 769-kilometre-long Integrated Storm Water Drains (ISWDs) project, funded by the Asian Development Bank. While the work on the Adyar-Cooum basin was completed ahead of the northeast monsoon, work on the Kosasthalaiyar Basin, which covers North Chennai, is still in the early stages.

According to GCC officials, the ISWD project is slated to be completed in two years. Speaking to TNM, a Corporation official said, “The integrated stormwater drains have a capacity to hold a maximum of 68 mm of water. In case of excess rainfall, flooding is bound to happen.”

The official also added that irrespective of the stormwater drain, waterlogging in the region will likely continue because of the terrain. “Even if the ISWDs project in Kosasthalaiyar Basin is completed, the waterlogging may continue due to the flat gradient of North Chennai,” he said.

S Janakarajan, a water management expert and former professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), however, refuted the claims of GCC. Although North Chennai is a vulnerable zone, there are still remedies to the flooding problem, he added.

“Chennai Corporation claiming there is only a limited remedy to the flooding in North Chennai is misleading. The GCC, over the years, has made several blunders in water management and now are blaming it on the rain,” said Janakarajan.

One of the major reasons why North Chennai faces repeated flooding is because of poor maintenance of flood plain area, he alleged. Elucidating his argument, Janakarajan said that Chennai city has a good drainage system and North Chennai, in particular, is known for its excellent flood plain area. “All rainwater and excess water from rivers, including Kosasthalaiyar River, used to drain into the Ennore creek, which is the lowest point of North Chennai, without any stagnation. However, these drains have been encroached upon. The Mangrove forest, which can prevent flooding to an extent, has also disappeared,” he said.

For example, two of the biggest drains in North Chennai —  the Royapuram Canal and the Vyasarpadi Canal  — used to be floodwater carriers. The region now has about five major 20 feet drains that are currently under encroachment, alleged Janakarajan.

Janakarajan also attributed the flooding to the canals, such as the Buckingham Canal, that are disconnected. “Besides, the canals are polluted with metals like mercury and the TANGEDCO also dump the fly ash into these canals,” he said.

Janakarajan also pointed to the high population density in North Chennai. “The water carrying capacity of the region has come down drastically, and so has the road space in the area due to encroachment.”

He also highlighted the unscientific manner in which the stormwater drains have been constructed. “The SWDs have been carrying drainage, solid waste, plastic, biomedical wastes and construction debris, ultimately clogging the drains. It is doubtful if the survey of elevation and water flow in the region was considered before constructing the SWDs,” he alleged.

Why urgent intervention is required

North Chennai has already become highly vulnerable to huge flooding. “The water is already flowing upstream and even from Andhra Pradesh. If not mitigated effectively and soon, the flooding will be serious in coming years,” he warned.

Additionally, North Chennai areas are witnessing coastal erosion. “In the current rains, we can see how the beach has moved closer. In a decade, there are risks of serious coastal flooding until the Madras High Court building. This is a warning given by climatologists,” said Janakarajan.

Once the rain is completely over, the Greater Chennai Corporation should think of restructuring and redesigning SWDs, said Janakarajan. “They could use pressure machines to remove the debris and check if stormwater drains have the capacity to carry water,” he added.

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