Chennai Floods: Whys and Wherefores

The brave volunteers of the Chennai Trekking Club during a rescue

The brave volunteers of the Chennai Trekking Club during a rescue. Photo credit: Peter Van Geit

The monsoons are a much-awaited occurrence in India. The first rains always fall with this slow grace and rather than chilling you to the bone, the raindrops are almost balmy, temperature-wise. The slow fall of the rain, the pitter-patter of the raindrops and the heady petrichor that follows a good soaking, these are generally the memories associated with the Indian monsoon. With hot tea and fried snacks coming on the menu to help chase the chill of the rainy days, the monsoons are definitely much-loved events.

Till December 2015.

After a November when it rained pretty much non-stop, the deluge that arrived with December pretty much wiped out the city. For days, it was like a combination of Apocalypse and Hunger Games, with the citizens battling the waters and trying to save themselves and their loved ones. Regular people swung into action and became heroes, heroic rescue efforts were carried out and with almost every modern convenience such as electricity, internet, mobile phones, fresh water gone, it made for a brutal week for most. For some though, their horrors still continue.

So, what brought this mayhem down on our heads? Typically, any flooding is a natural disaster but was this a natural calamity or a man-made disaster?

  1. Urban planning – or lack thereof is cited as the primary reason for this disaster. For what is one of the top metro of a country the size of India, Chennai (and Bengaluru, to name two) boasts a woeful lack of urban planning. Unlike in the cities of the West, where the areas are zoned and laid out carefully, taking a host of factors into consideration, Indian cities are built with nary a thought to the bigger picture. Educational institutions, office buildings, parks, none of these are planned and executed; instead, they are built wherever the builder or the promotor deigns they will be.
  2. Lack of awareness – of the local topography and/ or an apathy towards it. The inherent need to get on the property rung drove the masses to just buy  a dwelling wherever their wallets allowed them to. They did not question if their dreams are being built on solid ground, former agricultural lands or flood plains. Even IT companies and SEZs weren’t exempt from this – one of the biggest on the OMR was built on the converging point of two vast lakes. Fact: if you build your home where water used to flow, you shouldn’t be too surprised to find yourself in water at some later point.
  3. Lack of preparedness on the part of the governing bodies. In short, disaster management was nothing short of a disaster in itself. As always, the onus was on the common man to help himself and his fellow men out of the soup.

So, now what? The waters have receded now but the havoc they wrought still remain. What lessons need to be learned from this?

  1. Awareness – of the world around us. Basic geography; an understanding of where the flood plains are and is it sane to build on a piece of land is a question that must be asked, along with the cost of a square foot.
  2. Preparedness – now that we know what’s the worst that could happen, we need to be better prepared to face it. Understand that water sees no difference – if you are in its way, it is going to wash over you. It is in your best interests to ensure you are not.
  3. Mindfulness – think of the bigger picture. All the talks about sustainability and conservation need to be put into use now. Remember: garbage in, garbage out. Rainwater harvesting, indoor composting, urban gardening, harnessing solar energy, these are all what we must adopt and start putting into use right away. Next time we might not be so lucky.
  4. Humility – Nature is far bigger than all of us. We need to treat it with respect as running roughshod over it is what has brought us to this state.



What’s The Skinny On El Nino?

El Nino

Ever since climate change became something that could be ignored no longer, El Nino has been something we have been hearing more and more of. Folks that have no clue what in the blue blazes is an El Nino when it is at home, have been throwing it out in conversations, so much so it has become the thing to pin everything that’s wrong with the world currently on.

What really is an El Nino? At its simplest, El Nino is a complex weather pattern particular to the Pacific Ocean, that is a result of the variations in the ocean temperatures. El Nino also has a sister pattern called La Nina, which is a cold phase of the ENSO (El Nino Southern Oscillation) cycle, while El Nino is the warm phase. These patterns last for periods of around 9 – 12 months on average and occur every two to seven years.

Despite the fact that everything, right from Maggi’s fall from grace to Chennai resembling Cherrapunji is blamed on El Nino, what are all the ills that can rightfully placed at ENSO’s feet?

  1.  In South America, especially Peru and Ecuador, every three years or so, the ‘El Nino effect’ occurs, which is rather disastrous to the fishing economy. Not enough fishes are available, to the detriment of the fishermen and the animals that feed on the fish. Another result is torrential rainfall in the costal areas.
  2. Similarly, in California, where the havoc caused by the El Nino effect results in the decrease of the number of fish, resulting in collapse of fisheries and the animals that rely on the fish, such as seals, to die of starvation. The climatic conditions also cause the rise of storms and heavy downpour.
  3. On a positive note, there are fewer hurricanes in the Atlantic during the El Nino years; milder winters in western Canada and NW USA and above average rainfall in the Florida region.
  4. In India, El Nino is said to have caused the below normal monsoon in Northern and Central India for the past two years. “This is a typical El Nino feature where northwest India and central India will receive less rainfall”, said the head of the Indian Meterological Dept’s Long Range Forecast department.
  5. In fact, this year the El Nino is supposed to “cause havoc on the world”, according to this cheering information from the New Scientist.

Time to batten down the hatches, I say.


A Case Of Too Much All Around

Spectacular photography by Neetesh Kumar

Spectacular photography by Neetesh Kumar


The past couple of weeks have been vastly interesting ones in Chennai for many reasons. For one, the monsoon set in and how! We had rains and more rains and pretty soon, way more than we knew what to do with.

Which brings us to the second reason: how prepared are we for Nature’s bounty?

Arguably, this season’s rains were not the norm – but, we can never exactly gauge what Nature is going to do, right? Shouldn’t we be in a situation to deal with the excess windfall and utilise it for our times of need? In an ideal world, yes, but we are living in one far from it. So, the waters came in, flooded us out and left us in dire straits. As if this is not dismal enough a situation, imagine how we are going to be feeling when summer comes around and we are left with no potable water, as with every year.

So, what was the reason for the disastrous few days? Too much rain? Cyclone in the offing? Poor urban planning? El Nino? All of the above?

The rains threw up plenty of cracks in the way we do things down South, both good and bad. While Good Samaritans that threw open their homes and hearts to help their fellowmen were definitely the ‘good’ part of it, the ‘bad’ came in the form of just how badly planned our city is to handle such disasters. A truly global city would have been prepared to handle this by clearing out the storm water drains in advance and storing the excess water for future times of need. Instead, the poorly laid roads got washed away in the deluge, leaving behind huge potholes everywhere. These proved to be even more hazardous for the motorists as one didn’t know if the water in the roads was the same depth everywhere or if there was a massive dip in the middle.

Then there’s the plight of people in the outlying areas, where poor urban planning was thrown in spotlight. In supposedly upmarket areas of the OMR, where the bulk of the construction work is happening, lack of sewage solutions meant even the poshest of developments got flooded and people evacuated. By boats! Elsewhere, thanks to the decimation of their own living areas, the reptiles of the neighbourhood took refuge in people’s homes, which are most likely where their homes used to be. Unnerving sight, all right!

I wonder what the cost of the loss of productivity for these days is, to the government. As well as the money that needs to be spent in setting the city right.

There’s only so much we can pay – messing with Nature and then paying the price later on before it becomes too much, too late.


Of Water and Wastage


A leaky faucet. Dripping pipes. A forgotten motor and a cascade of water down the building. Water splashing off the roof of water tankers.

Every day, we see scores of incidents, little and large, that result in loss of water. Some, like the leaking tap, can be fixed straightaway. Some may need a few more steps to correct the issue.

But there are some, that go largely unnoticed that cost us a great deal more. But are left to continue on a day to day basis.

Fracking. The controversial process of drilling into the surface of the Earth, by injecting volumes of high pressured water along with sand and chemicals into the fissure to release gas. We are talking of massive quantities of erstwhile clean water being mixed with chemicals and used in non-palatable ways. Anything from 2 million to 4 million gallons of water are used in drilling one single shale gas well. In litres, that comes to 7 5,70 ,82,356 to 1,51,41,64,712 litres of water. To put this into perspective, an individual uses around 130 – 150 litres on average per day.

Can you now imagine the amount of water that is being taken out of the water table by this single act? This heavily contaminated water, with its host of chemicals, also seeps back into the ground and mixes with the ground water, poisoning it for miles and miles.

Aren’t these numbers enough to make your mind boggle?

Let me give you another example. A rather common, more accessible one.

Almond milk. How many of you drink almond milk in lieu of cow’s milk? A vast number of the world’s almonds are grown in the water-starved American state of California. Did you know, it takes one gallon of water to grow one almond? So, imagine how many gallons of water have gone in the next carton of almond milk you get your hands on?

But hold on. This doesn’t mean that you tack a pair of devil’s horns on the poor nut and shun it. Livestock are worse water guzzlers than any plant products. Around 90 gallons of water are needed to make one gallon of cow’s milk.

Does this mean you stop drinking milk or eating or go looking for fuel, altogether?

No. It means that you be even more mindful of the water you have, the water sources around you and look after them with care.

And fix that leaky tap.

Out Of (The World) Water

Interplanetary H20

There’s water crisis around the corner. Well, I know that isn’t actually news. If you are living in Chennai, there’s always a water crisis looming around, ready to take over your entire life. Time was, the Metro water tanks will be seen all over the city, splashing the unwary with precious water only during the summer months. Now, they are becoming ubiquitous.

So what’s the solution for THIS, the latest, water crisis? Get the water that is feeding our crops and divert it to our homes, of course! Simple!

Last year, on a trip to my father’s village, I visited the Kollidam, the overflow distributary of the river Kaveri. For the first time ever, there was no flowing water. Even in the harshest summer, when sand was all you could see, there still would be a tiny stream of water flowing through the middle of the river bed. That is no longer the case, say the locals. Ever since the deep bore wells were sunk straight into the beds to water the homes of nearby towns, the water that is found on the surface has dwindled to nearly nothing.

If this is what happens to our farmlands, where do we go for food? Or better still, food or water, which do you prefer more?

But there’s no need to worry as NASA has great news for us. There’s water on Mars!  Not just on the movie but in the real world! Not right now, but billions of years back. But hey, if there was water once, we can always stick some bore wells in and see if it is still there, right? As if that isn’t awesome enough, the boffins at NASA think there might be H2O on Pluto too! Beyond the realms of fantasy, or what?

Now, all it remains is for us to figure out how to get the water from there to our kitchens.


Have You Bid Farewell to Ganpati Yet?

Image courtesy: Webpothi

Image courtesy: Webpothi

The other day, as I was walking past a street in my neighbourhood, I spied this small, dirty toy. Or so it seemed at first glance. A child’s discard toy, I thought. On my next round, I saw more clearly – it was a mud statue of Lord Ganesha, that must have held the pride of the place in someone’s pooja room last week, was now quietly sitting on a dusty street corner.

Five to ten days after he was feted and made a huge deal of, Lord Ganesha is  ceremoniously bid farewell and dumped ignobly in, forgotten till the festival rolls around the next year. But the impact this festival, that is becoming a larger fiesta year after year, has on the environment is heartrending.

Traditionally, the Ganesha statues and the pooja itself are supposed to be the embodiment of all that is simple and biodegradable. Idols made of clay and items of decor such as grass and flowers of weeds that you normally would not even look at; and at the end of it, the idol is thrown into the household well and becomes one with the earth again. With zero carbon imprint, Lord Ganesha’s birthday used to be a forward-thinking and an eco-friendly festival since anyone can remember.

That is, until the “bigger and better” fever started gripping the nation. Gone are the simple idols made of clay and mud. In its place are the fancy Plaster of Paris models, with their toxic paints. Instead of the small images of the Lord, like some insane muscle-flexing contest, people are vying with one another to create massive statues and erecting them in every street corners. All of this results in bigger fanfare compared to the humble domestic festival. These gigantic statues need massive processions and a ceremonial immersion in the sea or river or whatever is the nearest water body.

The result? The toxic paints wash away and mix with the water, polluting it and killing all the fishes and turtles and other creatures that call it home. That this goes completely against the ethos of the Ganesha Chathurthi seems to have slipped the revellers’ minds, even as they continue trashing the environment year after year.

This year too, is no different. Long before the festival, environmental groups and activists started urging the citizens to be mindful of the world around us and not destroy the water as it is home to plenty of creatures. But, as with every year, those pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears this time around too, as the photos published in various newspapers show.

Yamuna cries on Ganpati visarjan“, declares TOI. Elsewhere, there were reports of cities immersing their idols in pits  and requesting devotees to stay away from water sources. Goa authorities have ordered water tests to determine the water purity, after the immersion. It is obvious that everyone recognises the practice of the idol immersion is affecting the water bodies and the lives that depend on it. Is enough being done to stop the pollution, to make the practice the environment-friendly activity it once was, is now the question.

What did you do with your idol this year? Did you throw it away, because, let’s face it, our wells are all running dry now? Did you mix it in a bucket of water and use it on your plants? Or did you make one out of chocolate instead, like this lady, and mix it with milk, to feed it to the underprivileged children?

However you bid farewell to Lord Ganesha, we hope you did it without harming the environment!



Invisible Water Available

INVISIBLE WATER_AVAILABLE RIGHT HEREA few days back, the newspapers carried this photograph with a rather arresting headline: Give us water, it says, and we can see many women sitting on the ground with their pots, in Krishnagiri, in Tamil Nadu, waiting for water. So what is so new about this picture, you ask. After all, when the mercury goes up and the rain refuses to put in an appearance, this is the image of every corner of the country.

And then, there’s this one: of yet another group of women (aside: why is it always the women? Are the menfolk not bothered if they have water or not?) walking up to the Collector’s office with their empty pots, asking for a regular supply of water to their area.

The reason these news articles are interesting is the fact that they appeared in the papers right alongside this news item: No water scarcity in the State, is what the Minister for Municipal Administration S.P. Velumani declared in front of the State Assembly the previous day, citing adequate rains and the fact that the demand had been worked out earlier and so, the supply details have been put in place well in advance.

Now, then. If only someone could call the womenfolk off. And maybe supply them with diviners.


Water Crises: A Solution From The Past For Our Future?


Every day, an average person’s social media feed is inundated with information, worded expertly for their shock value. Last week, one such cropped up on mine and it shocked me, all right.

“India’s ground water supply to run out in 2040!” it stated in no uncertain terms. In 25 years time, our country will run out of ground water. Between now and then, as our supplies go on down, the situation will become more and more dire. Remember what it is said: the next World War may well be fought over water – or our lack of it.

Now can you imagine the starkness of our situation?

When I was discussing this with my family over Sunday lunch, after the initial round of disbelief, one of my aunts asked this: “2040? Then we still have time to undo this, right?” I do not know about undo; how could you undo generations of abuse? Every day, we waste tonnes and tonnes of water; we proceed blindly, digging bore wells here and cutting trees there, with nary a thought towards the long term repercussions. How do you even begin to try to undo that?

But this doesn’t mean that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. We still can rein things in and stem the tide of damage. We still can come up with counter measures and contingency plans that can reduce the severity of the situation. And, who knows, buy us time. Because one thing is certain: if we do not start acting with forethought now, we will be in deep trouble long before 2040.


 Do you know what a baoli is? Baoli or bawdi is a traditional step well, which were quite common in  our country for centuries. Stepwells were found even in the the days of the Indus Valley civilisation. A pond or well serving a local area would have deep stone steps cut into its sides so that the people could climb down to the water and help themselves to it. These baolis had huge cultural significance to the lives of the people of the community, all of which came to an end with the advent of the British Raj.

But now, they are seeming something of a resurgence. Rapid depletion of ground water has made the people look into alternate sources and coupled with rainwater harvesting methodologies, baolis are being seen as good ways of combating the severe water shortage across the country. Many of the baolis have either fallen into disrepair or have been destroyed completely, thanks to the rapid and mindless urbanisation. In Delhi, for example, only 15 remain.

Under the guidance of NGOs and archeological trusts, the existing baolis are slowly being restored. Perennial problem demands a solution beyond the times, surely.


Where Is The Water?

Last Sunday, I went on a drive down the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR), to inspect a newly-built apartment. The apartment was in a gated community, beyond Kelambakkam junction and so, a fair ride away. Mile after mile, we passed by gated communities under construction, on both sides of the road.

The sheer numbers involved are staggering. There were at least two constructions going on per kilometer (this is a conservative estimate – many are being built, cheek by jowl), each one boasting no less than a hundred dwellings. So, the 30 km stretch we traversed will potentially host thousands of NEW households, each with its own set of requirements.

Imagine the amount of water that is going to be required by these people! Mind-boggling, isn’t it? This, coming on top of news days like this, makes you wonder where the communities are going to get the water to sate their needs.

Every single one of these developments boasted massive ad-blimps, listing features such as jogging tracks, community centres, organic food stores and swimming pools. None carried information on where they were going to source the water and how they are going to dispose of their sewage safely after. These are the unattractive background info that don’t sell but no jogging track is going to prove useful if you are not going to have any water to drink tomorrow.

The unfortunate detail everyone seems to be missing is that, there is simply not enough water to go around. Not at the rate in which we are going through it, in any case. We need to wise up now and start thinking of counter-measures, not just stockpile water cans as if that is going to save us tomorrow. Zombie apocalypse may not happen, but an acute water shortage is not any less scary a prospect.

Let us stop wasting water now and inculcate some solid conservation habits in ourselves, as only these will help us in the difficult times to come.

  • Do not clean vegetables and fruit in running water. Fill a bowl with water and use it to clean; make sure you use the dirty water to water your plants.
  • Running water and taps have made us careless in our consumption. Let’s dial things down a little. Fill containers with water – buckets and kitchen vessels – and use these for your regular use.
  • Reuse as much of the water as possible. Think multiple usage. Use the RO waste water to clean your floors and wash your vessels; set up a drip-irrigation method to water your plants; compost your kitchen waste and stop flushing things down.

What other methods do you follow? Do share them with us!


Of Rationing And Other Tales


I was driving past a busy road in R.A.Puram two days earlier, at the unearthly hour of 4.30 AM. My way forward wasn’t blocked by just the usual number of street dogs, hell bent on playing chase with my car’s right front wheel. 55% of the street was taken over by the motorcycles parked willy-nilly; 30% was this long queue of pots.

And women. The women of the neighbourhood had sacrificed precious sleep and were standing outside, balancing empty pots and waiting for the water gods to bless them. Or, for the water tanker to arrive and dispense with their daily ration, if you want to be particular.

Just think about that for a second. 4.30 AM!

Recently, the government declared that 800,000 cans of water will be provided to the people of Chennai at a highly reduced rate. A bubble top can with a capacity of 20 litres varies in costs depending upon the brand – A Bisleri or a Kinley can costs premium, while the locally made ones are around Rs 30 cheaper. The cheapest can costs Rs 30. So, the government’s plan to sell 20L cans at the very nominal rate of Rs 7 – 10 per can will definitely be welcomed by the people, especially those poor woman lining the streets in pre-dawn hours.

Whilst availability of water is great news, what about our consumption? Water is used in enormous quantities in various industries and unless a solution can be found for reducing water usage, we will never be able to bridge availability of water and our desperate needs. This is why, this news item is one worth sitting up straight for:  ‘Common treatment plant for silk, cotton units will save groundwater’ . According to the news reports, “The proposed integrated silk park in Kancheepuram is expected to protect groundwater in and around the temple town from being polluted with effluents.” Typically, the park is still far from being a reality but the very fact that our powers that be are coming up with suggestions to salvage the groundwater situation instead of letting it all go to ruin and then wring hands helplessly, is a commendable development.

One hopes the other industries follow suit and think actively of saving the finite water sources from destruction.