Chennai Floods: What do we learn?

Ten years ago, Mumbai was flooded. Rains wreaked havoc on the Financial Capital of India.

Today, ten years later, Chennai faces the same onslaught of water. It seems weird that at a time when farmers are committing suicide in Karnataka and Maharashtra, because of drought faced, people are dying in coastal Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh due to floods. Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink. Water, water everywhere, every drop is out to kill me. In the last decade, Mumbai has shut down for atleast one day, every year, in June, July or August due to the rains. Chennai has experienced rains in two sets this winter. One was in November, and one, in December. I’m gonna treat these two as separate instances and then draw a conclusion between two two.

November

Rains struck Madras in November 2015. It was heavy, taking the city by shock [I refrain from using the word surprise here]. Nobody expected these kinds of rains. Around 180 people died, the Central Government sanctioned ₹900crore. Chennai Police officers and Chennai Corporation workers worked tirelessly, day-and-night to help ease the situation. Ola, offered boats to those stranded, while UrbanClap announced free pest-control and OYO Rooms offered rooms ar discounted rates to shelter those who were stranded. 200 people lost their lives in this tragic incident.

December

Rains struck Madras on 1st of December. This time, Nature, really came down on the city like hell. 200 people lost their lives. The Army, Navy, Air Force and National Disaster Response Force [NDRF] were deployed in no time. Water levels reached the first floor in several localities, the Adyar and Cooum were overflowing, indundating the Saidapet, while the Palar was inundating the East Coast Road near Kalpakkam. To help the issue, CMRL continued operations of the Chennai Metro throughout the night. Madras Christian College, SRM University, Sathyam Cinema, Forum Mall Velacheri, among others offered shelter to those stranded. People were offering shelter and publicly posted this along with their phone numbers on Twitter and Facebook. The good folks at Twitter India were busy retweeting people who added #ChennaiRains to their tweets. Some good Samaritans like Harshita Murali, compiled a list of whom people could get in touch with if they were in Trouble. My friend and fellow OpenStreetMaps geek Arun Ganesh came up with a Crowd-Sourced Map that enabled people to report which areas were flooded, in order to help coordinate rescue and relief efforts. One Hotelier even offered rooms outside of Madras on a Pay-for-Food basis.

Observations
Media

As always, our national media hasn’t bothered. They’re more bothered about ‘Intolerance’. They’ll cover Paris, but not Madras. As I had stated earlier; for our media:

  • Floods in Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Coastal Andhra Pradesh: Don’t care, South India isn’t important.
  • Floods in Bombay: Failure of BJP and Shiv Sena in the MCGM.
  • Floods in an NDA state: Corruption.
  • Floods in a non NDA state: Nature’s Fury.
  • Floods in Delhi: National Calamity.

Of course, the media did eventually cover it, but it was pathetic. The Hindu tried to pass off pictures of a 2013 deluge inside Delhi Airport as Chennai Airport while CNN-IBN reportedly abused the #ChennaiRainsHelp hashtag with their spammy news.

NDTV went a level higher stating that Chennai Airport is doomed to suffer because its runway is built on a river. I don’t know where these retards and morons studied English and Journalism from, because the runway is not ON a river, but a bridge built OVER the Adayar river. Chennai is not the only city in the world to have done this. The taxiway at Mumbai Airport was extended across the Mithi river in the form of a bridge too. This is common abroad as well.

Social Media

Like always, Social Media has always been the most useful. Chennaiites, have helped each other by offering shelter, food, and what not. People are sharing addresses and phone numbers on email to hep each other find shelter and get help.

Government

At the state level, Police, Fire and Municipal officers are doing their level best to coordinate rescue efforts. MTC and CMRL are running services as much as possible. At the central level, the Armed Forces and NDRF have been deployed. Indian Railways has offered all possible help as well. BSNL is offering free local and STD calls, free SMS, additional 100mb free data for Mobile and Landline users, Rent Rebate for 7 days and an extension of billing cycles by a fortnight. The Central government is doing a lot, Karnataka donated ₹5crore, which TN rejected. Apparently AIADMK workers are now stopping relief material entering to stick Amma stickers on them.

Others

Ola, OYO, and other private companies have shown their humanitarian side, while Sathyam Cinemas, Forum Mall, SRM University et al have opened their doors for the stranded. Zomato is offering food packets as well.

Skeptics

I read about a week ago, about a person who was criticising Ola and Uber, calling the Ola boats a publicity stunt. He claimed that if Ola and Uber had operated services during the floods people would not be stranded. He also stated that MTC drivers, should be thanked for continuing thru the downpour. I believe this is a bit harsh. If it rains, smaller cars would would get inundated. Back in 2005, people in Bombay died because their cars were inundated and the ACs spewed toxic fumes or their doors and power windows got jammed. BEST buses, especially Double Deckers were saviours back then.

Some skeptics, including journalist Sagarika Ghose and IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt chose to politicise/communalise the issue with talk of Hindu-Muslim and Cows. I guess unless they are stranded in the rains themselves, they will not learn.

What can you do, if you are stuck, or you can offer support?

  1. Contribute to Arun’s map above if you can.
  2. Coordinate with Harshita [linked above] on Twitter or Medium and share details.
  3. Do not forward images on Whatsapp. Last week, some News Channels were showing images of a flooded city in China, claiming it was Chennai.
  4. Contribute to the Zomato fund, or some other cause. There are people donating Power Banks to Chennaiites.
  5. Stay indoors, stay safe. You do not know what can hit you, bite you, suck you in.
  6. AVOID RUMOUR MONGERING and DO NOT PANIC OR CAUSE PANIC.
  7. If you are on Twitter, and you have something to share, use #ChennaiRains, #ChennaiRainsHelp and tag @TwitterIndia or @The_Hindu in it.
What can we learn from this?
  1. Every city needs to be prepared for such incidents. A strong Disaster Response team needs to be set up at a local level.
  2. Coastal cities, namely Chennai, Mumbai, Mangalore, whole of Goa, Kerala, Vijayawada, Puduchery need to get together and find new ways to pump out storm water.
  3. Interlinking of Rivers must be taken a lot more seriously now.
  4. This must be a wake-up call for illegal, irregular, unathourised constructions. Chennai would not have been affected to this level if it hadn’t been for the screw-ups done by the Corporation of Chennai, Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and Directorate of Town Planning.
  5. Lakes and river beds must be cleaned, desilted.
  6. Storm water drains need to be redesigned.

Having experienced the Floods of 26th July 2005, I know how it feels to be stuck in the rains. Be brave Chennai, if Mumbai could survive, so can you.

 

Updates


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26 July: Did we learn anything?

It has been exactly 10 years since Mumbai was inundated on 26 July 2005.

A flooded street in Mumbai with a BEST bus on it.
A BEST bus on a flooded street. Image copyright Hitesh Ashar, CC-By-2.0, available on the Wikimedia Commons and Flickr.

What have we learned from this event? Every year since 2005, there has been atleast one day in July [sometimes June] when the city comes to a complete standstill because of the flooding.

There are five major rivers in Mumbai, the Oshiwara, Poisar, Dahisar, Mithi and Ulhas. While the last one doesn’t exactly touch Mumbai per se, Salsette island lies on its Mouth, which makes it equally important, if not to Mumbai, then to the remaining areas of the metropolis, such as Thane, Kalyan, Karjat, etc.

The Mithi is the most talked about river in Mumbai. Sometimes, referred to as the Mithi Nala, it originates by the confluence of water discharges from the Vihar and Powai lakes,  flows south, passing under the Runway at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport before emptying out into the Mahim Bay. Now, throughout the course of the river, the Mithi, as are most other rivers passing through an urban area [except perhaps the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad], is subject to a huge amount of pollution. Pollutants in the Mithi come in the form of industrial waste, human waste, animal waste, and the ever-present, littering. This results in the river being toxic through much of its course, and being clogged with plastic and other such substances, just makes things worse. However, the last ten years have seen a lot of improvements. The MCGM has done a lot in digging up and desilting the river, thus increasing its water-carrying capacity. This was achieved by partnering with several private firms and NGOs. The river also acts as a source of livelihood to anglers in the monsoons who catch fish. Due to the high dissolved toxic components in the river, the MCGM came up with a plan to pump in Oxygen into it. Many areas of the river now have concrete walls to prevent encroachements, as well as to ensure the uniform width of the river.

The Dahisar River, originating in the Tulsi Lake inside the National Park, flows for around 12km. It passes under the Dahisar Bridge, which at one point in time, was a cinematic background used by the industry. Polluted in the same way as the Mithi, a few residents associations joined hands to start cleaning it up.

The Oshiwara River, half the length of the Dahisar, originates in the Aarey Milk Colony, and flows west towards the Arabian Sea. A lot of buildings are said to have been built on the mouth of the river. It passes next to the BEST Oshiwara Depot. Among the various measures suggested to fix this river are conversion into a waterway, and generating biogas out of the sludge.

The Poisar River, again begins in the National park and proceeds to the west, passing next to BEST’s Poisar Depot. What is interesting is that the MCGM began its clean-up back in 2006 itself. A land exchange between the MCGM and the Government of Maharashtra enabled the widening of the river, thus making it less encroached. Towards the eastern side, concrete walls and other measures have been taken to keep the river unobstructed.

Now, this brings us to one major project that was meant to fix everything: BRIMSTOWAD.

The Brihanmumbai Storm Water Drain [BRIMSTOWAD] project was launched in 2007 to help fix the city’s Century old drainage system. Under it, the MCGM increased the capacities of more than 2/3rds of the drains in the city. Under BRIMSTOWAD, eight pumping stations were to be built. Among these, four at Irla, Haji Ali, Love Grove and Cleveland Bunder have beem put into action. The Mithi River was designed to accommodate 120mm/hour precipitation. Various measures are meant to be taken, but when is the operative question.

Powai Lake Overflowing in 2005.
The Powai Lake overflowing in 2005. Image Copyright Bhadani, CC-BY-SA 2.0, Available on the Wikimedia Commons.

Here, the Powai lake is bursting at its seams. The lake is full of water hyacinths. These flowers need to go, they ruin the lakes. They can be used to generate energy however.

All in all, the city seems to have done a lot to combat the rain gods, but it seems this has not had much of an impact of the rains. The MCGM, along with the National Disaster Management Authority [NDMA] both need to team up and find a solution out of this mess once and for all for Mumbai to flourish in the monsoons.
Given how bad and inefficient administration, bad coordination between city and state, have ruined the Civic infrastructure, turning the city into a Wannabe Venice every year, we must focus on cleaning up the rivers, if not for water yo flow, then atleast for transport purposes.

 

Note: This article is dedicated to a friend, who at the age of 8, braved the entire floods a decade ago.

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