Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
“This is New Orleans after the levees broke.”
Last week, as world leaders met in Paris to discuss climate change, the Indian city of Chennai was drowning.
The coastal city of more than 4.6 million residents saw its heaviest rainfall in a century. Around 280 people have reportedly died from the resulting floods. Thousands have lost everything they owned. The city’s key IT, auto, and pharmaceutical industries have been crippled. Three million people have been left without access to food and clean drinking water, as authorities carry out relief operations.
A friend of mine from graduate school, the journalist Ajai Sreevatsan, grew up in Chennai, and last week his parents’ house was submerged under water. After a few harrowing hours of not being able to get in touch with them, Sreevatsan found that his parents were ultimately—thankfully—rescued by the National Disaster Response Force.
“They've probably lost everything they owned but they're safe and that's all that matters now,” he wrote in one Facebook post. “My hometown is drowning, suffering and hurting. This is New Orleans after the levees broke. Maldives 10 years from now,” he wrote in another.
As the water recedes, the manmade problems that led to this devastation are becoming starkly evident. At the COP21 talks in Paris, Chennai has been brought up as an unfortunate exhibit of the perfect storm created by climate change and shoddy urban planning.
And here’s a video created by the Indian Express summarizing all the climate-change and urban planning related problems that led to the devastation in Chennai:
The role of extreme rains
In November, Chennai received the highest monthly rainfall total in its recorded history. In the first week of December, the downpour intensified; on December 2, Chennai saw 34 times the normal daily amount of rain, meteorologist Eric Holthaus points out in Slate. Holthaus, as well as climate experts in India, attributed this season’s excessive rain in the country’s southeastern region partly to this year’s strongest-ever El Niño and skyrocketing temperatures in the Indian Ocean.
“One of the most confidently predicted consequences on warming land and oceans is an increase in evaporation that could provide more fuel for more intense rainstorms on land,” Holthaus told The Hindu. “The recent extreme rains in Chennai surely seem to fit that trend.”
The contributions of climate change were worsened by a confluence of other weather-related circumstances that caused the intense, unrelenting downpour at the beginning of December. Here’s researcher B. Mukhopadhyay of the India Meteorological Department in Pune, again via The Hindu:
“An individual episode like that on December 1 is a combination of several factors and in every such episode, the combination changes. On December 1, the lower-level moisture supply was high and upper air evacuation of the moisture was also strong. We call this phenomenon upper air divergence, and the effect is that the cloud becomes very intense. Both coincide very rarely,” he said.
But while the resulting rain was unprecedented, the flooding wasn’t. Chennai has seen serious flooding several times before, and the local government has not learned its lessons. State Chief Minister Jayalalitha called the damage this time around “unavoidable.” Facts on the ground, however, suggest the contrary.
The role of poor planning
Chennai was poised to fail in a flood by years of poor urban planning. Arivudai Nambi Appadurai is the Indian adaptation strategy head for World Resources Institute’s Climate Resilience Practice based in the U.S. During the floods, his family in Chennai took shelter from the floods at a nearby guest house. From Paris, where he is attending the COP21 talks, Appadurai wrote about these importance of remedying infrastructure problems that heightened the impact of the floods:
There are no good resilience plans in place to help the area withstand climate-related natural disasters. With the kind of infrastructure we have and increasing construction along waterways and encroachments along river banks, we can expect extreme impacts from floods. It's kind of a big eye-opener for planners and policy-makers. It's very important to understand this in that context and try to do something about it by being futuristic so we can plan well for these kinds of situations in years to come.
Part of the problem is how much development occurs near water. There are more than 150,000 illegal buildings in Chennai, according to the city’s Metropolitan Development Authority, and many of them encroach on land adjacent to water bodies. The city’s airport, which had to be temporarily shut down during the floods, was built on the flood basin of one of the rivers running through the city. Chennai’s mass rapid transit line runs above the Buckingham Canal. And tech facilities have been built on the banks of lakes.
Another part is inefficiency by public officials. In the 2008, the city received federal funds to update its stormwater drains. These fixes were supposed to be completed in 2013, but during that period, the state government got virtually nothing done, The Economic Times reports. A 2014 report by India’s comptroller and auditor general concluded that “alleviation of inundation of flood water in Chennai city remains largely unachieved.” In August 2015, the city also announced that it would be developing an early flood-warning system, but that’s now too little, too late.
As with Delhi, Mumbai, and other cities in India developing at breakneck speed, Chennai has relegated its most vulnerable residents to its most precarious regions. They are the ones who disproportionately bear the brunt of natural disasters. At the Paris talks, India is already driving the conversation about the global effort to reduce climate events. But hopefully the impact of this latest flood will also force local leaders to face the urban problems they’ve put off far too long.