A deserted Marina beach in Chennai before Cyclone Nivar made landfall, November 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters/P. Ravikumar.
Chennai: On November 25, citizens of Chennai had more reasons to worry than the then-impending onslaught of Cyclone Nivar.
The announcement that water from the Chembarambakkam lake would be released into the Adyar river revived vivid memories of the flash floods in 2015, which sent the city scrambling for help and shelter. According to official sources, over 400 people had died due to the floods that year across Tamil Nadu – but most of them in Chennai. Government sources also said some two million families had been stranded and some four million hectares of crops were lost.
Just a year later, Chennai was hit by a drought that brought its people again into the streets – this time looking for water.
“The water had remained at my ground-floor home for about three days, and it took more than two months for life to come back to normal,” Sai Anand, a resident of K.K. Nagar, in the city’s centre, told The Wire Science. “Rains were never the same again. Obviously this time too we were extremely worried, but thankfully even if the waters were released, I think the government was well-prepared.”
Chembarambakkam has since been the stuff of nightmares for Chennai’s residents – so much so that Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy had to visit the place this year to take stock. On November 25, officials released 1,000 cusec of water in the morning, gradually increased to 7,000 cusec at night. (One cusec is one cubic foot per second, equal to 28.3 litres per second.)
That Cyclone Nivar didn’t damage the city as much was a huge relief for the state itself. But the question remains: was the city Chennai prepared at all?
The Chennai Corporation said it was on its toes the whole time Nivar was passing over. “We have … improved our infrastructure in terms of storm-water drains, particularly in the Cooum and the Adyar basins,” an official said. He claimed they had completed “storm-water drains for about 1,000 km”, calling it a “game-changer”. The corporation also claimed to have “improved” desilting operations and purchased ‘super sucker’ machines to move water away from flooded areas.
The official also credited interdepartmental coordination, including with the “public works department, the highways and the railways”, as a reason for their fair success with Nivar. “We had also developed a comprehensive, integrated command and control centre where we got live feed of the rainfall and hourly reports, and knew where the problems were.”
The corporation had installed surveillance cameras to monitor subways. “We were heavily prepared. The decision making was real-time and data-driven,” the official said.
Finally, the official added that officials had increased the Chembarambakkam lake’s storage capacity and that people living around the lake had been evacuated as a precaution. “In two days, we cleared about 509 fallen trees. We had also followed social media to get sense of issues and addressed them. We left no stone unturned.”
Environmentalists in the state, however, have a different story to tell. For example, to G. Sundarrajan, a member of an environmental movement called Poovulagin Nanbargal (Tamil for ‘friends of Earth’), the problems become apparent by zooming out just a little.
“For 300 days, the government would actively work against environmental concerns, and for 60 days, they spend their energy on disaster preparedness,” he told The Wire Science. “This doesn’t work. I agree that the government did limit the damage of property and lives, but it isn’t the government’s duty to give shelters and feed people. It is of course important, but a government should think beyond and act better.”
In fact, according to Sundarrajan, the ways in which Chennai city officials have prepared this time reflect failure on the government’s part to learn the right lessons from 2015. If it had learnt those lessons, he said, “it wouldn’t be doing things that are threats to environment – like allowing encroachments in Ennore creek.” A report published last week by a campaign called ‘Save Ennore Creek’ found that that since the 2015 floods, Central and state public-sector undertakings had encroached on 667 acres of the Kosasthalai river’s backwaters in Ennore.
S. Janakarajan, a retired professor with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, also disputed city officials’ claims ‘doing better’ this year – principally because comparing a disaster in 2015 with one in 2020 is fundamentally flawed. Their impacts were very different. “We had two spells of rainfall in 2015. In the first spell, we had about 800-850 mm rainfall and in the second, 550 mm,” he recalled to The Wire Science.
The second spell “added pressure and created havoc in the Adyar river. Now we have had only 250 mm of rainfall. Imagine what would have happened if it was 550 mm? For 250 mm, we saw how water levels at the Adyar river were rising. How could we even say that we have handled it well?”
In Janakarajan’s view, the government was following procedural reservoir-operation rules, which “allow” the reservoir to be filled up by 22 feet. “But this is an extraordinary, ‘super-cyclone’ year,” he continued. “We can’t follow the same reservoir operation rules. We need to have had special provisions and revise [the threshold] to 19 or 20 feet, even if it means wasting water. The lives and properties of people are more important.”
“We were actually saved this time because the rainfall was not so heavy.”
According to him, the Adyar’s original carrying capacity is 72,000 cusec. “We had a flood in 2005 when it touched 60,000 cusec. In 2015, it was 1,06,000 cusec. This time, it was not even 15,000 cusec.”
Janakarajan also took aim at the popular claim that many of the lakes from which the city draws its water are full, that they are overflowing. “The truth is they are heavily silted. Their original capacity has not been restored,” he said. By way of example, he said fully one-third of the Chembarambakkam lake is filled with silt.
“Desilting a lake is not the same as desilting a well. There is a hydrological methodology that ought to be followed. In fact, the government can handle the costs of maintaining the water bodies just by selling the silt. But clearly, they are not keen.”
In his final analysis, Janakarajan echoed Sundarrajan – that the state administration wasn’t responding to the right issues, lacked motivation and harboured priorities that allowed environmental damage until the rainy season was here. “I wouldn’t even say nature saved us this time,” Janakarajan said. “We should have expected worse and been better prepared.”
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.