How to save that sinking feeling: Chennai's tryst with seasonal flooding

Climate Action Collective gathers young enthusiasts to deliberate over the causes and cures for Chennai's climate crisis, and lay down an action plan

Published: 15th November 2021 01:19 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th November 2021 01:19 AM   |  A+A-

Climate activists pointed out that having built our homes inside lakes and irrigation tanks, we will be forced to watch it ‘fill up’ and not flood during every weather episode

Climate activists pointed out that having built our homes inside lakes and irrigation tanks, we will be forced to watch it ‘fill up’ and not flood during every weather episode (Photo | R Satish Babu)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: On a Saturday evening that was briefly saved from the rain events that had us bracing for a repeat of the 2015 nightmare, youth groups — functioning in the area of environmental well-being — found some success for their Umbrella Rally. When asked about the response to the rally, environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman — under whose aegis the Collective came to being — remarked that he would have considered it a success even if no one (from the public) had showed up; if only for the fact that it brought these young minds together. “Right now, they are saying Enna pannalam? Let’s go for the meeting, let’s talk about it, let’s look at campaign strategies’,” he elaborates. Taking all this talk a step closer to action was the Collective’s meeting on Friday to discuss ‘Chennai Floods & Climate Crisis — Causes & Cures, Unpacking the Pathology of Growth & False Solutions’.

Disaster has a pattern
The deliberations began with an acknowledgement of the latest expression of our climate concerns — the city’s tryst with seasonal flooding. Climate activists have long since pointed out that having built our homes inside lakes and irrigation tanks, we will be forced to watch it ‘fill up’ and not flood during every weather episode. While the ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of Kondingayur lake and Velachery Eri have made rounds on social media, Nandhabalan, a class 11 student who (along with 3-4 other students) had set out to look for answers to flooding problems in Kolathur, shared the results of his research on the city’s lost waterbodies that accounts for 100 such comparisons.

His map shows the complete encroachment of 37 lakes and partial loss of over 64 so far. Puzhal lake was four times its current size; Kondingayur lake had an equal-sized buddy lake whose name is long forgotten; every area with ‘bakkam’ in its name once had a waterbody — the learnings were aplenty. Too many of these yesteryear waterbodies are now ground for housing complexes, commercial establishments and residential colonies. The city’s flooding patterns — a constant since its disastrous avatar in 2015 — is quite consistent with Nandhabalan’s map. 

But, the idea was not just to grieve over lost lakes. For these were among the people facing the present-day consequences of such a development. What followed Nandha’s presentation was a brief video of one of the group’s active members. The recording showed the man, hours after participating in the Umbrella Rally, packing up things in his house and moving it to the bed and higher shelves on the wall. His house was among the many that was flooded during the rains that followed. He and his family had to move to a safer place. Pointing out that this is what they were working with, Karthik of Chennai Climate Action Group (CCAG) pointed out that climate action must also look at social justice. “Climate change is not just for Besant Nagar or Adyar, it is for everybody. I’m here because I’ve started noticing where water drains quickly and where it takes more time. It clears out in five minutes in Alwarpet but Pulianthope is still waterlogged,” he remarked. 

To flourish, not flood 
Bolstering this point of view were representatives from villages in Ennore — Sreenivasan and Ravimaran. “Parry’s is  considered an important part of Chennai. Besant Nagar is around 15 km from there. But, Ennore is just 14 km. And yet Ennore is like an Athipatti to most people; they don’t even know where it is,” began Sreenivasan. In the past few decades, the part of north Chennai that is now considered to be outside city limits has lost much. Be it the salt plains, its distinct prawn population and the livelihood it offered, its basic water resources.

Now, after TANGEDCO’s many violations, CPCL’s side effects and the doings of several ports that have changed its landscapes, its people are still fighting to fend off newer destructions. “Imagine how rich and resourceful a place must have been if both fishing and agriculture flourished there. Even in the late 90s, we used to get good water just 20 feet from the shore. Now, the water quality has dropped drastically. In the eight old villages of Ennore, even in low-lying areas, we never had flooding problems. For the fisherfolk knew where water collects and built their houses accordingly. It’s only now that we are seeing more of this flooding problem,” narrated Ravimaran. It’s with the arrival of industries, added Sreenivasan, came a whole host of problems like saltwater intrusion, contamination by fly ash, coal and crude oil, a drastic change to the biodiversity of the waterbodies. 

With such diverse, complex problems in hand, there’s a need to look beyond the confines of the problem-solution paradigm in its singularity, said Nityanand; for, these complex problems require solutions on multiple levels. The idea is to complicate an issue like flooding for younger people, so that they will look deeper for its answers,whereas the older people tend to look for an easy way out. “The cause for flooding cannot just be corruption or construction or the government; it’s a far more complex problem and it needs to be understood in its complexity. Older people want to deal with simple things, say ‘How do I drain the water?’. If you drain the water, you won’t have drinking water.

So, how do I manage the flood problem without causing a drinking water problem? We would like to ask the difficult question,” he suggested. In that spirit, the meeting discussed the many pitfalls within the fight for climate justice, the idea that the beach is a place of recreation and not a place of work for fisherfolk, the farcical oxymornonism of a ‘green buildings’ eating up the remnants of marshlands essential for the city’s natural drainage system, our collective reluctance to look past the temporary truce offered by the capitalist economy and much more.

Having gotten neck deep into the well of causes, the Collective is working on finding the appropriate cures too. Nandhabalan’s map of lost waterbodies has made it to the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewarage Board for reparation and restoration wherever possible; in August, TANGEDCO began removing the dredged sand that was dumped illegally in the Kosasthalai backwaters for the Ennore SEZ project’s coal conveyor corridor, thanks to the tireless campaign by local fishers. 

Members of the Collective are now working towards compiling data and research from Ennore-Pulicat wetlands; they are soon to include other areas of need like Kovalam. And they hope to do this all, one meeting at a time. 

Spurred on by the effects of the recent rain, the


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