Cyclone Vardah brings Chennai's vulnerabilities to the fore, reminds residents of 2015 floods

For the second time in 10 days, Chennai wears a deserted look, this time it is because of cyclone Vardah. The eerie calm that the city wore when J Jayalalithaa passed away has been replaced by howling winds, the sounds of falling trees and crashing signboards.

Nisthar Ali, a Chennai resident, recalls a cyclone of similar intensity way back in 1962; none in the recent past. To many residents of Chennai, the power cuts, the incessant rains since Sunday night and the flooded roads are reminiscent of the December 2015 floods.

In Kodambakkam, a central locality, Hanif (Nisthar Ali's son) – whose house was flooded in 2015 – has to keep clearing the falling tree leaves so that they don’t clog the stormwater gratings and the water does not stagnate. Chennai has already recorded nearly 100 mm of rainfall and the wind speed has hit 100 km/hour.

After the 2015 floods, reams have been written about the poor urban planning, encroachment of water bodies and blocking of natural water courses by allowing construction of buildings.

 Cyclone Vardah brings Chennais vulnerabilities to the fore, reminds residents of 2015 floods

A locality in Chennai after Vardah made landfall. Firstpost/Jency Samuel

Vardah has brought the vulnerability of Chennai to the fore again. Though the government did undertake de-silting of water bodies and removal of encroachments, they were not full-fledged measures. There is also the reason that some of the encroachments on Pallikaranai marshland and other water bodies are not only by private entities, but also by government bodies for their research institutions and infrastructure projects. In spite of 2015 floods, no strong policies have been effected to future-proof our cities and make them climate-resilient.

Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth, who has studied Pallikaranai Marshland (PML) extensively, says that the city’s master plan needs to be reviewed from a hydrological perspective. She adds that the focus should be on the city’s vulnerability because of being on the coast.

Indumathi Nambi, an associate professor at IIT-Chennai, reinforces this, adding that the PML’s water retention capacity has to be increased so that its effective in prevention of floods. “Hydrological and hydro-geological studies have to be carried out to find out how the water retention capacity can be increased. It is also necessary that the cascading eri system, where water from one tank overflows to another and so on till it reaches the sea. Many feeder channels between such tanks remain blocked.

Nambi points out that where possible, the original channels should be revived and new connections established elsewhere. Many residents are now aware of the need to have water bodies, and those in the southern localities have been urging the government to restore the tanks and lakes in their localities.

Ravindra Singh of GIZ (Gesellschaft fur Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH) advocates assigning monetary value to the ecosystem services provided by water bodies, mangroves and trees. “Would you equate a vulture to a sedan? The economic value that one vulture does in cleaning carcasses is equal to the value of a sedan. So, if you consider the ecosystem services of a real estate plot near PML and price it accordingly, there won’t be any buyers,” he says.

Vel, a fisherman from Pulicat, also working as a coordinator with an NGO, rues that the sand dunes that acted as buffer against cyclones and tsunamis have disappeared, especially in Kattupalli, where a new port has come up. The same holds true for mangroves.

Stormwater drains were cleared months ago in anticipation of the monsoon. As residents of a low-lying area points out, the silt was not cleared immediately and most of it found its way back into the drains. Even though stormwater drains are necessary, there are not many provisions for the rainwater to seep into the ground to augment the groundwater.

Though the government had initiated Rain Water Harvesting (RWH), not many residents are aware that they should be cleaned periodically for efficient functioning. Sekhar Raghavan of Rain Centre advocates RWH in public spaces too. He cites the example of Besant Nagar where recharge wells on the roads have effectively prevented flooding of roads.

Sundar, employed in a private firm at a distance of 4 km from his residence, had to traverse more than 12 km since all the roads were blocked by fallen branches and uprooted trees. At the time of reporting, he was trying all possible lanes and bylanes to reach home. Shobha Menon of Nizhal – an NGO working to save and enhance the tree cover of the city – rues that trees receive attention only during cyclones because of the loss they cause to lives and property or pose hindrance to traffic. She says that they need to be regularly pruned and maintained, adding that native trees such as neem, pungam, illuppai and marudhu are better in withstanding extreme weather events.

Though the Corporation of Chennai has taken measures such as temporary shelters, health centres for eventualities during Vardah, evacuated people from coastal settlements, deployed motors to pump out water from sub-ways and has NDRM and official machinery on the ready, long-term measures are imminent be it Vardah or any other extreme weather event.

Updated Date: Dec 12, 2016 19:15:23 IST