Of Flooding and… more flooding

Image courtesy: Manchester Evening News, Chennai Trekking Club

Image courtesy: Manchester Evening News, Chennai Trekking Club


“Please join us this weekend for a cleanup of the Adyar river. Assembly point: X. Time: Y am”

As recently as two days prior, I got this message. Despite many weeks having passed since, the effects of the colossal floods that hit TamilNadu are still being felt, with many areas still lying under water or the mountains of filth the waters threw up. Yes, the same garbage we mindlessly chucked around, now found its way back to the people! Go, Nature!

Weeks after the devastating TN floods, yet another part of the world suffered from similar events. Cumbria, in the north of England, home to the picturesque Lake District, woke up to knee deep water the day after Christmas. Things just got worse from there, with many people chased out of their homes at one of the coldest times of the year.

How did the two countries deal with their very similar disasters and what lessons can we learn from this, going forward?

1. The Home Team, Chennai

Cause: Despite the fact that a month of deluge really soaked the ground up completely, it was the release of the water from the local reservoir at supersonic speeds that upset the applecart.

Effect: Widespread floods along the banks of the river Adyar, many people losing their belongings and homes and more woe than you can bear. Grim was the outlook.

The immediate aftermath: Chaos. The city and the state were totally unprepared for this level of destruction and the Common Man swinging into action mode was what saved the day. Regular people prepared food by the tons, packed and took it to the starving masses. Local adventure sports schools took to rescue by putting their boats and kayaks to use.

And after? Once the army and the special forces entered the game, things started speeding up. Helicopters dropped food rations off for people waiting for them at the top of their buildings and rescued pregnant ladies from precarious situations.

2. The Away Team, England

Cause: The cause was rain and more rain. Typical for England, “more than a month’s worth of rain fell in a day”, across the part of the country that already receives a great deal of rain. A great deal of water + too little time = a massive flood.

Effect: People woke surprised to see water inside their previously warm houses. Widespread flooding, with more flood warnings put into place.

Immediate aftermath: The affected were moved to the local community halls whilst the local councils went about inspecting the flood defence systems and inspecting damage.

In both cases, “record” amounts of rainfall fell on the areas, setting up the situation for a crisis event. What differed massively was the difference in the approach to combat it. In both countries, the officials swung into gear straightaway, assessing damage along the line and inspecting the affected areas. But the major difference was the bulk of the citizens that swung into action in Tamil Nadu, trying to help their fellowmen. They, the volunteers, became an army, collecting money, basic essentials, clothes and even arranging for vital textbooks and reached it to the needy. Shockingly, there were many reported cases of politicians subverting their efforts and trying to put their stamp on it but the volunteers just stepped up their efforts.

In England, the elected officials and the council workers, whose job it was to do these things, arrived with the big machinery, cleaned up and supplied aid, till the affected could move on.

That, my readers, is the difference between the developing word and a developed one. And that is why, the locals are still relentlessly cleaning up the river banks and beaches, clearing up the garbage so life can return to normal, for man and animal. Or, in many cases, better than it was before.




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.