As Kerala reels under unprecedented monsoon flooding that has displaced millions wiping out their homes, with over 88 dams opened up and threatening to burst at seams, I am re-blogging here something I penned over three years back when my hometown Chennai was trounced exactly in a similar manner when we feared, the seas would actually wash out our city. Of course, with due additions and editions.
Kerala reportedly is now hundreds times as worse as Chennai/Tamil Nadu was then. That Kerala is mountainous mostly adds to its woes, triggering landslides everywhere. Whether this disaster is natural or man-made is a billion dollar question. Onto my original post now:
NAVIGATING THE NON EXISTENT WATER BODIES OF CHENNAI
“ARJUNA PALGUNA PAARTHA KIRITI SETHUVAHANA….’
would plead my grandmother to the skies, everytime it thundered during monsoons when I was a little girl. It was a fervent appeal to the lords to spare us poor souls from worst fates. The thunder accompanied by lightening so would not strike us down.. Going to beach every other day especially in summers was routine for us back then. And my mother would whisper a silent sloka to the sea god Varuna taking a fistful of salty water to spray on our heads as we girls played with waves washing our feet. Small prayers. But they reveal to me how our parents and grandparents never took nature for granted, how they dreaded the wrath of the five elements that held the power to determine our life and death. It was a time before the landscape of Chennai was to be significantly altered by our realtors. One or two mistakes were since committed here and there perhaps but things were still under control, perfectly manageable.
Folks back home tell me I do not know what I missed. They say I can never even imagine. Over 150 cm rainfall in 48 hours, with reservoirs filling up at lightening speed threatening to breach their bunds and canals and minor river channels criss-crossing the city overflowing into downtown and suburban neighbourhoods all alike, Chennai proved to be sheer hell and nightmarish for residents this Nov 26-27th of 2015 which marked the second and wettest spell of the current North East Monsoon season… The meteorological department did their part, no blame game here. They say, El Nino for the first time has approached the east coast of peninsular India and from hence forth, we shall remain in the eye of the storm for a long time to come….
THE LOST WORLD
Cyclonic storms are not unusual or unheard of in the city where I grew up. The one raging season in my memory was that of the year 1977. They said Madras would be swept under the sea just the way Dhanuskodi, near Rameshwaram, was in the year 1964 in south Tamil Nadu. The storm changed course in the last minute and hit Ongole, 300 km away from Madras, in the Andhra Pradesh sea coast.
The peninsula coastline resounds with tales of tragedy from Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian continent, to as for as Odisha. Each year, a different part of the coast may bear the brunt but the story is the same.
Mahabalipuram aka Mamallapuram is a seaside resort town a mere 40 km from Chennai. The Pallava temple architecture and stone sculpture make it a tourist heaven drawing visitors from around the world. The shore temple in Mamallapuram is the 7th one erected by the Pallava king, with 6 already swallowed by the sea.
The shore temple dating back to 9th-10th AD is now a world heritage site preserved with utmost care. Corroded by salty air and threatened by erosion, it will not be a surprise if the waters wash away the final surviving one against all odds. The temple escaped Tsunami in Dec 2004.
Even the famous Kapaleeshwar temple of Mylapore is said to have been taken away by the sea from its previous site and the temple with main Murthis was moved to the present complex only hundred years back.
Kaviripoompattinam aka Poompuharwas the Chola capital during 2nd century BC. It is one more Tamil township taken by the sea.
We come to know of Poompuhar through ancient Sangam Tamil literature dating back by two millennia wherefrom the great literary work called ‘Silapathigaram’ unfolds. Poompuhar was a very busy maritime port of those times. Having read ‘Silapathigaram’ composed before the birth of Christ, as a school girl it always amazed me how very well advanced and civilized ancient Tamils were. The epic is based on a true life incident concerning the king and his ordinary subjects who are delivered a hasty and wrong justice. How the accused man’s wife proves the truth to the king in the court and absolves him off his crime is the crux of the tale. It is this kind of rich and prosperous and knowledgeable society that the ocean waters swept away even 2000 years ago.
Kannagi, the real life heroine of one of greatest Thamizh epics of all times has a statue standing in Marina beach, Chennai, 2000 years after she lived, and thus has become immortal in our minds. None can face up to a woman scorned!
(Dwarka, Krishna’s birthplace, has recently been unearthed from under the sea in Kutch coast.
If verified and proved scientifically by research, Dwarka could pre-date Indus Valley Civilization by thousands of years. It is possible that after the lost world of Dwarka, ancient Indians picked up the pieces yet again from fragments and built the Mohenjadaro and Harappa, starting all over. There are indications that river Saraswathi mentioned in ancient sanskrit texts also vanished with whatever catastrophe sunk Dwarka. Discovery of Dwarka also disproves many myths carefully constructed by western minds about the origins of Hindu religion. Dwarka is ultimate proof that Ram and Krishna are not mythological figures but most ancient Indians who lived in and graced the subcontinent whose children we all are today.)
The last heaviest damage from the sea was inflicted by the Tsunami that struck the southern coast in Dec 2004. Thousands perished – cricket teams of boys and coaches in the Marina beach of Madras having been whisked away in blink of an eye that fateful morning. Devastation was upto Andhra coast. But after what we saw in Indonesia’s Aceh and Thailand and Sri Lanka, the local statistics never mattered to even our Indian media. Entire fishing hamlets were swept off in Kanyakumari district.
Cuddalore is the most cursed town in Tamil Nad. There is not an year when it is not lashed by ferocious monsoons. Kadal = Sea in tamil, very apt name.
It is now once again the turn of Chennai to face the wrath of the sea gods, looks like.
In over 78 years of her life, my mother-in-law says she’s seen nothing like this. My 70 year old aunt confirms the same.
DEBATE IS ON WHETHER MUCH OF CHENNAI’S RECENT MONSOON DISASTERS COULD HAVE BEEN MAN-MADE
Heaviest downpour recorded in any single day in a century no doubt, but the city still has had a good network of waterways like canals and rivers that traditionally and historically emptied vast volumes of rain water from spilling lakes and reservoirs through time-tested routes ino the sea. In recent past, these functional water channels have been hampered and littered with rapid urbanization resulting from hectic pace of industrialization that has not only got our water and land polluted but also choked some crucial bottlenecks whose existence had worked as barrier preventing many a natural calamity from shaking the city.
We can say, a combination of all the three did us in: the heaviest rains recorded in 100 years plus overflowing rivers and canals coupled with opened up lake-reservoirs that were about to breach their banks.
RAIN WATER HARVESTING: A TAMIL TRADITION
Ancient Tamils were good and knowledgeable about irrigation canals. Karikal Chola built the Kallanai, the world’s oldest dam across river Kaveri that stands good until today (with some minor improvisations in the British period).
There was a scientific way our ancestors harvested the rainwaters in.
Now the lowest channels of spillage like ‘Kuttai’ no more exist. Kuttai means a small pond. Where are ponds in the city or in surrounding 100 km radius today. When was the last time we heard of the frog in the pond. In bygone era, rivers swelled during monsoons spilling into lakes. From lakes, the waters were fed into ‘Kanmai’ and other various lower degree holding capacity channels and finally reaching the village ‘kuttai.’ Homes had wells built in to draw waters for domestic use. It was a healthy distribution of water and it helped in preventing drought. Today we have the rainwater harvest system working in converse pattern. The quickest to overflow (if at all they exist) are the ponds or kuttais. From receiving from superior waterbodies, the lower end of irrigation/drain/water storage systems have transformed into primary flooding sources. Wells wherefrom water were drawn has been replaced by tubewells and motors to pump out the ground water.
This is a chief reason for Chennai getting flooded; we could have still withstood the 150 cm rain in 2 days had we had an efficient channel of networking of rain water harvesting and storm water drain system working.
WATERS THAT FEED CHENNAI
In order to understand how the lake-reservoir-river-canal system works in the city and adjoining Thiruvallur and Kanichipuram districts, we have to first understand the complexities involved in rain water spillage and distribution in these parts.
Major feeders to Chennai Metropolitan City:
CHEMBARAMBAKKAM LAKE & RESERVOIR
POONDI LAKE AND RESERVOIR
PUZHAL LAKE AND RESERVOIR
The main lakes/reservoirs supplying water to Madras/Chennai are Chembarambakkam lake and Poondi reservoir. Adyar river has its source near the Chembarambakkam lake while Poondi reservoir spills into the Coovum river. Kosasthalaiyar or Kosasthalai river with other minor tributaries flows into Poondi lake/reservoir Buckingham Canal has its origin in Andhra Pradesh, constructed in the British era. All the 3 waterways viz., Adyar river, Coovum river and Buckingham Canal criss-cross the city to empty finally into the Bay of Bengal.
(Veeranam lake is one more vital source of water supply for Chennai which I am leaving out as it does not fall under the flooding zone of the terrain. Similarly Palar is another major but non-perennial river of Tamil Nadu which also I am skipping. I have seen it only dry but recently even Palar was seen flooding that made the locals rejoice inspite of the damage the monsoons wrecked. Kosasthalai flows through Thiruvallur district that adjoins Chennai. Puzhal in Red Hills is the fourth major water supply for the metro.)
http://www.jollyvideo.com/1154 – this link details the various waterbodies such as lakes, rivers, reservoirs and canal systems of Madras/Chennai city. Excellent educative video.
ANCIENT HUMAN SETTLEMENTS MAINTAINED SAFE DISTANCE FROM WATERBODIES
Man has always lived away from waterbodies, making home in dry patches of land, even if it was to be by river bank or seashore. Low-lying areas were scrupulously avoided. Which is why, the oldest settlements of the city fared well and stood up to the monsoon fury while the latest developments faltered.
Noticeably in the recent drowning of certain residential neighbourhoods in the city, we can observe the following pattern: those along the Coovum were least affected while those close to Adyar river were taken by surprise. Both parts of the city regularly get an average and manageable level of waterlogging in some low-lying pockets but 10-15 feet high levels of water rise is so far unheard of.
I live in a relatively safer zone where surprisingly through all this, there was not a single drop of water stagnating. Same goes to the street I grew up in Mylapore, the oldest part of Chennai. Our 20 feet lane is normally cursed by motorists who get vexed maneuvering their latest sedans, but humble as it is the settlement could be existing for over 300 years who knows. The property has been in my mother’s side family for generations. The foundation stone for the tiled house with trees in the front yard was laid in 1947. Through all the bleak news pouring in, the one about the oldest streets in Mylapore not being water-logged came as a morale-booster.
The main streets of Royapuram near harbour similarly saw very least water related issues.
True when most of the city was inundated in unprecedented floods this Nov-Dec, there were certain parts of even Mylapore and Royapuram that went under. This is because of some new highrises in these areas in these recent years.
So it gets clear how the oldest inhabited areas of Chennai that were planned proper were least affected by the floods. Even if India (including Chennai) may have very poor capacity for sewage treatment with no capacity expansion executed in last many years, life goes on. For a 8-10 million strong city with densest population in congested localities like Mylapore and Royapuram, the grand old parts really pulled it owing to proper streamlining of drainage systems that could be as old as nearly a century.
A SUCCOUR BY WAY OF TEMPLE TANKS
In Mylapore I remember a silk sari showroom (P Maniammal Textiles) being opened in North Mada street in a vacant corner plot, when I was in school. Even at that time the public opinion went that, the concerned square plot had been deliberately left open for generations as it was catchment area for rains in Mylapore that were routed underground to Kapaleeshwar temple tank (reasons being geological). Given that Mylapore is an area of middle-class street/row houses, we can understand the significance behind leaving the source of the temple tank open to skies. How the property changed hands and construction was managed there remained a puzzle. There were fears that water would stagnate in the ‘Mada Veedhis.’ The sari shop closed on making loss and then a bank branch came up there.
I never saw the Mylapore Kapali temple tank go dry in my younger years. But it did for the first time after the opening up of the showroom and even then locals blamed corruption behind the illegal (or otherwise) construction for what they thought until then was ‘impossible.’
Tamil Nadu is a state of ancient temples and Madras is a city of temples. There is no Hindu temple in India that does not stand beside a lake or river or man-made square tanks. In urban areas, it is mostly a constructed tank that harvests rain water as is the case with Kapali temple in Mylapore, Parthasarathy temple in Triplicane, Marudeeshwar temple in Thiruvanmyu, Kandaswamy temple in Parrys’ just to name a few of the dozens within city limits. The storage in temple tanks was actually meant for ablutions to be carried out by devotees before entering the holy places but it has now been learnt that it helps in recharging groundwater in surrounding areas. Whenever the Mylapore tank holds full capacity water, water-table in Mylapore rises nearly upto the surface. Whenever the tank runs dry, the water-table also considerably falls – sometimes to below 70-80 feet as it did in 2-3 continuous dry seasons when monsoons failed. So there seems to be a direct correlation between tank water storage and ground water content as it has been observed over years.
Although it always pleases devotees to look at lotuses and lilies in the tanks when they are brimming after a productive monsoon, we are also concerned of the imminence of weeding out the undergrowth should the tanks go dry. In Mylapore, there are actually more than 2-3 temple tanks, Kapali temple’s being the largest. The second one is Chitrakulam also close to our house, attached to Kesava Perumal temple. There is a third one within the premises of Madhava Perumal temple, a beautiful one, inaccessible to anyone from the street. This highlights the importance of water storage in our culture in past history.
Likewise every single area/neighbourhood in Chennai has atleast 2-3-4 temple tanks with good holding capacity that have been silently benefiting communities for generations. Even now if the tanks run dry, it is only because the sources to these tanks seem to have been taken over for construction-habitation. Now the tanks have solely become rain-dependent. The empty patches of land that served as catchment areas no more exist.
Penathur Subramanyam Iyer (after whom the 100 year old PS High school was named – which my father attended) seems to be the brain behind the storm water drains of the era in this part of the city. A lawyer by profession, he served as the Commissioner for Mylapore division in the Madras Corporation from 1890 to 1901.
DRY LAKE-BED TO SUBURBAN NEIGHBOURHOOD…
Nungambakkam, the heart of Madras does have a ‘Lake Area‘ by name so it is not a feat guessing how and where Nungambakkam came into existence. Looks like entire Madras was once a city of lakes and small rivers. Unbelievable.
Thygaraya Nagar (shortly referred to as T Nagar) is also one of oldest parts of Madras but then it went under water as well in recent storms, why? All these years I had no idea T Nagar was also originally a lake area.
Similarly Gandhi Nagar, Adyar and Raja Annamalai Puram which are prime residential neighbourhoods are situated perilously close to Adyar river that is on its last leg of journey in meeting with the Bay of Bengal. Near Chennai coast, Coovum river, Buckingham Canal constructed during the British period and the Adyar river form a delta. Adyar creek with its estuary sustains a very sensitive and fragile ecological system which is under dire threat with mounting scale of pollution.
In late 1970s, one of my precious memories is visiting with family, the Anna Nagar Trade Fair. In those days when transport facilities were limited, going upto Anna Nagar by bus was like visiting the next town for those of us Mylaporeans. It was a month long affair that we toured in groups – adults and children together. What is unforgettable until today about Anna Nagar is, how we went boating there unbelievably in Coovum river which was deep and expansive so far as I can recollect. It was the highlight of our picnic.
Soon Anna Nagar, one of the best planned parts of urban development of the city became another core business as well as residence center. The Anna Nagar West Extension area is as such referred to as ‘Rettai Eri’ – the twin lake. The SBOA schools sit exactly on lake-bed besides a booming middle-class colony. So one more wetland taken over for human settlement when dry spells of monsoons persisted for 2-3 years together in the past when the waterbodies ran dry.
Even in very recent years there has been the ‘Eri scheme’ in Mogappair, less than 4-6 km from Anna Nagar, touted as the next Anna Nagar. ‘Eri’ means lake which is a dead give away. To begin with, the scheme was mooted by none less than the state government as MIG and LIG housing plots.
ENCROACHMENTS IN COOVUM RIVER & ADYAR RIVER AND BUCKINGHAM CANAL
Back from my workplace in early 1990s, from the 4th floor windows of my office building, I used to look upon on buffaloes immersed in Coovum river in the Ethiraj Salai (not a strange sight in India 😀 ) In fact I wrote a blogpost once on the blissfully ignorant peaceful animal that always used to capture my imagination. All mothers in Chennai also have this habit of calling their thick-skinned sons as ‘Erumai madu’ (buffalo)! There is Coovum flowing through Mylapore as well but over years, encroachments have shrunk the breadth of the river canal. One of the sights I retain from those times upto the ’90s is that of the black beasts enjoying rain or shine neck deep in the waters – which reminds me how much navigable these waterways were once upon a time.
My mother-in-law talks of a time in her childhood when people used to take boats from Chetpet (which lake and river canal are surprisingly preserved to these days) to as far as Mylapore through Egmore. It is only in last 30-40 years that the development has been haphazard with no consideration to the damages inflicted upon ecology and surrounding environments.
This July-August as we were taking the newly laid bridge over the Coovum from Shoban Babu’s house in Nelson Manickam Road, we were exactly discussing about the unauthorized constructions flanking both sides of the waterways. My husband grew up in this area so as an outdoor lad in his younger years and now as an experienced civil and structural engineer, he has a precise idea of how much encroachment has been effected in river/canal embankments in his immediate locality as well as entire city in some 25-30 years. The Ampa Mall and PVR Cinemas had their retaining wall sinking when construction was going on – in the Nelson Manickam Road – P H Road junction. It was set right overnight. It is one more grand violation that has been since regularized by CMDA perhaps which sits right on Coovum.
Even if Coovum is a narrow river, it has never been this much restricted as in recent years that there is a fear that in very near future, it’s flow into the sea could see total curtailment at some traversing point. This could spell nothing short of disaster for the city. Coovum could run dry in summers but it is an important channel to empty storm waters in monsoon times, the lifeline of the city. With Buckingham canal, it forms a critical network carrying sewer (untreated or partially treated) water on release from our treatment plants.
Areas adjoining Coovum saw least damages this year because, Poondi reservoir that is channelized into Coovum river was opened well in time before the second spell of heavy rains started in November end this year. Poondi handled it better than Chemberambakkam. If Poondi had deferred opening up even by a single day, then entire Chennai city could have been swept away by now (including our area) under water.
Underscores, how vital critical thinking and effective administration must be. Lax in either resulted in Chembarambakkam fiasco.
CHEMBARAMBAKKAM LAKE, THE LIFELINE OF CHENNAI
Chembarambakkam lake is perennial source of water supply for Madras (and Veeranam steps in as the second source). Ever since the lake bed went dry, it looked like a jungle had sprung to life in the midst of the lake, with trees growing furiously amid bushes in the vast expanse of the waterbody. Heavy unauthorized encroachments from all sides was hard to miss and the lake itself seemed to have shrunk in size. Clearly the lake was not weeded in time for monsoons just as no other waterbody in the city/state was either. The unpreparedness resulted in lakes and tanks filling up too soon with water overflowing into adjoining neighbourhoods.
CHANGING FACE OF CHENNAI : FROM FERTILE WET LAND TO DRY CONCRETE JUNGLE
Next we come to the other far end of the city, an extension of South Madras – the IT corridor OMR (Old Mahabalipuram Road) and its parallel one ECR (East Coast Road) that abuts the sea.
The satellite picture of the same area clearly indicates how the water-retaining areas and water bodies of the region were taken over by multinational IT companies over years whenever monsoons failed and the area went dry. Unauthorized dealings were also systematically regularized by government as the city became a place to reckon with in software industry. Even during normal monsoon spells, the roads here choke completely as the highway storm water drains here are a mess. The 200 ft IT highway OMR has a lower road level, a serious lapse in construction and design of the highway executed at exorbitant costs from tax payer money. Rainwater harvest/storm water draining system has not been fit into most parts of this major arterial road that leads to a super economic zone where billions of dollars are earned for the nation by the techies. The neighbourhood also has been prospering with high-end apartment complexes offering latest lifestyle comforts. But with the failure of the most basic infrastructure such as storm water drains in the connecting nerve highway, the multinational corporations have since come face to face with the dire risk of sinking. Was risk analysis ever done before the estates were acquired for development? Did the civic authorities factor in the once existent water bodies that were plotted out and handed over in silver platter to corporate lobbies.
THE PALLIKARANAI MARSH
Siruseri where TCS has its upmarket corporate office is prime agricultural land as well. Right upto Tiruporur, this area has been rural and wet during monsoons. Even as far back as in 1997, the area was heavily inundated in moderate downpours. It was well know that the right hand side of OMR which is the rear of Velacheri/Pallikaranai is a low lying area. Pallikaranai Marsh lies right behind, which is a listed avian sanctuary (protected forest reserve) with a variety of winged visitors making it their nestling grounds during breeding season. The Marsh has also shrunk in size most significantly.
More shocking is how part of Pallikarania has also now been turned into dumping yard for the entire city. In pic: the vanishing Pallikaranai Marsh with the highrises in the background with the spoils of the day dumped in mountains.
Untold damage has since been done to the city’s precious waterbodies that have been precious and natural storage points for potable water. Similarly the dry beds of seasonal lakes/tanks/ponds etc., that have been acting as absorbing sponges during flooding monsoons have been turned into concrete jungles. Where is room for flowing water to meander its way through this mess to the Bay of Bengal? The waterways have also been turned into clogged channels for untreated/semi-treated sewage which has wrecked havoc with the aquatic/marine life like fresh water fish in the canals/rivers, sludgy all the way to the sea. H2S-high toxic sewage and filth, froth as the water channels of the city rush to greet the ocean like one long line of slush and ash. How can any healthy eco system survive in such a polluted environ.
Sewage treatment plants in India including Chennai have very limited functional capacity, if at all we have any. Further more they are outdated.
Today the opposition parties of Tamil Nadu are asking for CBI enquiry into why the Chembarambakkam lake was opened up belatedly, without prior notice by midnight. This single lake thus is responsible for bringing down the major part of the city. Inefficiency of the bureaucracy coupled with ignorance is the chief reason.
If we have to start investigating matters, we have to start with Veeranam water pipeline times of Karunanidhi period, beginning with 1968 when he served as PWD minister in the state government. Since then, not much has been done for capacity expansion of sewage treatment plants or holding capacity of reservoirs.
Jayalalitha carried out some water pipe and drainage pipe replacements in key areas of the city including my street. Now that has saved us from much of water logging. I guess we benefited because we live in the heart of the city.
In her second term as CM, Jayalalitha also carried out prompt RWH – Rain Water Harvest – that the successive Karunanidhi’s DMK government failed to keep up. When ADMK returned to power and Madam became the 3rd time CM, there was no time for her for administration (for a variety of personal reasons) and RWH has been since long forgotten. But most developers seem to be incorporating RWH in new projects, not because of any legal or corporation statute or rule book, but because they happen to think it is good and prudent to keep the water table replenished periodically with every monsoon. While weeding out of waterbodies was done systematically in previous JJ regimes during summers, nothing of the sort was carried out in the present term.
PRE-MONSOON CRITERIA: WEEDING THE UNDERGROWTH & MAINTENANCE/UP-KEEP OF WATERBODIES
Sometimes, citizens themselves take the initiative to weed out dense growth from tanks and ponds. NCC units for instance have been rendering such a selfless community service with young men involved in the good job for years. Chitrakulam, a small temple tank in Mylapore was thus cleared of weeds and made good by school students for a project. Similarly a few years back, my cousin and his friends weeded out the temple tank attached to Nitya Kalyana Perumal temple in ECR (30 km from city).
When the government is dysfunctional, it is finally upto us countrymen to fend for ourselves. This is what happened in Coimbatore (refer the above link).
IN THE EYE OF THE STORM
A wild thought: is it possible to reclaim the lost waterbodies of the city ever? Soon sanity returns. Those regularized settlements like Nungambakkam, Anna Nagar and Mogappair were after all government layouts principally when the lake beds ran dry in off-seasons or harsh summers. Not saying the private promoters had no role to play. These encroachments on natural water bodies have since long been integrated into the corporation limits and constitute the heart and lung of the metropolis today. Even the highrises/tech-parks/complexes in OMR cannot be reclaimed, even if falling under various Panchayats situated in the outskirts of Chennai. But someone somewhere will come to foot atleast a part of the bill : and that someone could be our maid or driver or cook or tailor or bus conductor or factory worker or carpenter or plumber or mason who would have spent his/her entire life savings in procuring patta for that tiny square bit of land parcel he/she may fondly and proudly refer to as home, bribing officials at all levels… I am talking about the encroachments in Coovum and Adyar and Buckingham Canal banks… It is these hapless residents who will pay dearly with their lives and livelihood in case of manmade disasters, and never the upper middle class residents of Nungambakkam or T Nagar or the corporates of OMR/ECR belt.
Very shortly expect to see bulldozers smashing to smithereens whatever is left off the pathetic wash-out of the lower middle-class subsistence that will be once again be thrown out of the city, forced to start life from scratch…. Rest of us can still pick up the pieces from where we left and move on…
CHENNAI’S WATERSHED MOMENTS…
A friend in Pammal recounts the harrowing night. The locality boasts of new constructions so did not go much under the deluge. The friend’s house stood 1 meter water (only) for a single night and she and her husband were forced to flee to the top floor. She says there was running water in the street like a rivulet but they did not fear it getting in. Without power, the couple were planning to retire to their rooms for the evening. Just then their neighbours knocked alerting them to a rise in water level and seeking refuge. Their old house next door lying at a lower level already had over 4-5 feet of water and they panicked. Water was starting to enter my friend’s place. The 2 families moved furniture, locked doors and barely had time to disconnect electronics before fleeing up the stairs. Within minutes says she, the entire ground floor inside the house had about 1 meter water in which snakes came swimming.
They spent sleepless night in the open terrace at third level, abandoning even the middle floor, worried about rising water level. In mid-morning next day my friend says, flood water finally receded completely in her place. But had had done enough damage by then. She is still scouring her grand house clean. Lots of re-fixing have to be carried out which will cost the family a fortune.
It has been raining nonstop for days in the city from even before Diwali. There was a light respite in the 3rd week of November but the rains resumed with vengeance by 24th.
Chembarambakkam, the largest reservoir supplying water to the city, had not been opened up in time by officials as CM’s signature was pending as well as the Chief Secretary’s. For 2-3 days, valuable time was wasted in exchange of correspondence. Inefficiency and indecisiveness cost the state dear. The lake had neared its full holding capacity by the first spell of monsoons itself. The delay and official apathy destroyed much of Chennai. By midnight the officials realized they could not postpone opening the floodgates – and when they did, it caught the napping citizens by surprise. Without power and with phone lines down and communication channels cut, many lost their lives as well as valuable assets.
With much of Chembarambakkam water discharged, now the retained capacity is merely 60% avers the friend who fears a water crisis in the city by next year this time, should the monsoons fail in the following season. Had the opening up been gradual and regulated, the standing capacity could have been maintained at a safe and healthy 85%. Too much of water in November and water scarcity by July, is it? What a reversal of fates.
Mismanagement of the highest levels where the government, official bureaucracy failed miserably but the good samaritans of Madras rose in a single wave giving humanitarian help.
‘No crimes reported during relief operations, but do not expect the conditions to persist’, warns the friend. ‘As reality sinks in, the state/city is left with millions on pavements without a roof over their heads and not a pair of clothes to change.’ Next few years will be very difficult for Chennaites predicts she, when crime-rates will zoom and murder for gain will become commonplace. And this is not counting the Epidemics. ‘Wait until January when the slum dweller feels the pinch, the owner of the cornershop who’s lost his stocks and customers in one go starts counting his losses and the labourer lacks his tools to go back to work. This is not about individuals, this is about a society where everyone’s livelihood has been crushed. This is not about rain or floods; this is about the morale of the city/state, this is our destiny.’