Firstpost Investigation: Were the Chennai floods a government-made disaster?

Firstpost spent a week reporting from Chennai during the floods, during which time former bureaucrats, environmentalists, urban planners and citizens suggested that the city’s administration was to blame for the disaster. Inquiries revealed that these complaints bore merit: A comprehensive development plan for Chennai, which was submitted to the government in 2009, was prescient in its understanding of what could befall a city groaning under the burden of ultra-rapid development. The recommendations contained in this report, prepared by a former bureaucrat, were ignored by the Corporation of Chennai (CoC).

This report is the first of two articles that investigate the findings of the report and the city administration’s lapses. The second part will appear on Tuesday and be accompanied by an analysis of the report, by AK Roy, senior fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University.

An InvestigationBefore the deluge in Chennai earlier this month, after being warned of heavy rainfall, the civic authorities decided to release water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir on the outskirts into the Adyar river.

Since more than 500 mm rainfall was predicted over 1 and 2 December, bringing down the level of water in the reservoir from 22 to 18 feet — so that it could absorb the downpour — appeared to be a viable solution. Since the Adyar was also comparatively dry because of scanty rainfall before November, the authorities were convinced that the water could be successively diverted with this pre-emptive measure.

But the proposal became mired in bureaucratic wrangling and the sluice gates could not be opened before the rain started. “By the time permission was granted by the chief secretary, it was too late,” a senior Tamil Nadu government official told Firstpost, requesting that his name be withheld as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

When it began to rain, the reservoir overflowed within hours. Panicking officials opened the sluice gates, hoping Adyar would absorb the gushing water. But soon its embankments were overrun. The swollen river soon inundated the city. The Tamil Nadu government explains its position in a detailed note dated 13 December, to "clarify the correct factual position."

According to The Indian Express, by around 10 pm (1 December), the water was being released at 29,400 cusec into the Adyar river, which was already in spate as engineers feared a breach of Chembarambakkam’s boundary. It took three to four hours for the water to reach the city from the reservoir 25 km away, but by midnight on 2 December, land in a more than four-km radius around Adyar, which flows through the heart of Chennai, had gone completely under.

To add to Chennai’s misery, the gates were opened at around midnight, and without warning. The city and its citizens went under overnight.

Environment vs growth vs flooding


This overlay of three maps shows environmentally sensitive areas in Chennai, population density in municipal zones, and a crowd-sourced map of areas that were flooded during this month’s rains

Map key

Ignored warnings

Not acting on time, neglecting advance notice of possible flooding, and overburdened drains, reservoirs, rivers and rivulets has blighted Chennai for years.

In a detailed report titled Chennai City Development Plan-2009, a group of experts had suggested rehabilitation of Chennai's waterways to ward off future threats. But the report, submitted to the CoC on its request in September 2009, was dumped. (The article continues after the report)

Chennai City Development Plan 2009

“The urban waterways in Chennai were reasonably healthy and pollution free until the middle of the last century. However, their condition deteriorated because of severe pollution and reduced carrying capacities. This can be attributed to the urban pressures on the waterways,” former IAS officer MG Devasahayam, one of the authors of the report, told Firstpost.

Chennai has two major rivers criss-crossing it: The Adyar and Cooum. Another river, Kosasthalayar, traverses a small distance through the Chennai Metropolitan Area.

The report revealed a heavy inflow of waste from municipalities and town panchayats into water bodies feeding the Adyar, which, ultimately, bore the brunt of the pollution. In the CoC area, which is densely populated, both treated and untreated sewage is let out into Adyar and Cooum rivers from various outlets.

Kosasthalayar river joins the Ennore estuary, which too is highly polluted by industrial effluents and domestic sewage from urban local bodies.

Another important water body, the 48.3-km-long Buckingham Canal, has been destroyed. “The effect of urbanisation and industrialisation in and around the city and inflow of waste has converted the canal into a virtual open sewer," Devasahayam said.

In addition, waterways are encroached at many places constricting the width of the rivers and limiting their ability to carry floodwaters without overtopping their banks and embankments and entering into habited areas. “Construction of bridges and causeways without sufficient vents to carry water and without hindrance under changed catchment conditions had led to formation of afflux at many places in the river courses and causing inundation in adjacent areas during high-flood conditions,” said Devasahayam, who is the national consultant to Sustainable Chennai Project.

Overall conditions of these waterways, the report says, can be rated “very poor because of high loads of sediment and nutrients, high turbidity, highly obnoxious odours and very low levels of dissolved oxygen”.

But, no action was taken.

Nonexistent drainage systems

Storm water drainage infrastructure, according to Devasahayam, in most of the municipalities is “either nonexistent or inadequate. Only a few municipalities have functional drainage systems.

“Planning and design of drainage systems are deficient and typically not integrated with the drainage in the surrounding catchment areas,” he said.

More importantly, there is no data on where the drains are. “There is no correct map. It is also is unknown what the lifecycle of the drain is. If we do not have the lifecycle of the drains, we cannot actually know when it is supposed to be maintained,” said environmentalist Satyarupa Shekhar, director, government outreach and advisory services, of (Chennai-based) Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group.

At many places, sewer lines have been illegally connected to the drains. “When we have intersections with the sewer networks, complete flooding of the city becomes inevitable. It is actually sewage water which is flooding it,” Shekhar said.

Chennai’s suburbs are crippled

Vikram Kapur, principal secretary/commissioner of the CoC, told Firstpost that the civic body is “responsible for provision and maintenance of adequate storm water drainage in the city area. The mandate for development, maintenance and management of major drainage systems such as rivers, streams, water bodies is given to Public Works Department (PWD)”. While he wouldn’t go so far as to admit culpability, Kapur accepted that the city’s appendages were handicapped. “The extended areas virtually do not have storm water network,” Kapur said. “The chief minister has announced the project and we have sanctioned works, which have just started.”

TK Ramkumar, a water resource management expert was quoted by The Indian Express as saying it took Chennai about 30 years to achieve this state of disrepair. “The fact that water discharged at 10,000 cusec after Diwali flooded the city shows the Adyar doesn’t have that so-called carrying capacity of 60,000 cusec,” he was reported to have said.

Clearly, the tragedy was made in Tamil Nadu, not in the heavens.

Updated Date: Dec 14, 2015 23:55 PM

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