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Relevant for: Environment | Topic: Disaster and disaster management

Cyclone Nivar raised fears of another epic disaster for millions of coastal residents in the south, but its passage overland near Puducherry early on November 26 was less destructive than anticipated. The reported loss of at least three lives is a relatively low toll for such a large-scale weather system, although property and agriculture have suffered considerable damage from the fierce winds and massive volume of rain it dumped in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. Citizens and the government were fearful of a deluge that could be a repeat of the 2015 flood — which killed a few hundred people — and they overcame COVID-19 fatigue to prepare for the worst. There was also a welcome emphasis on periodic alerts and warnings. The IMD has been getting better at forecasting slow-moving, linear tropical cyclones in the Bay of Bengal, and multiple satellites now provide cyclone data. The deployment of over two dozen NDRF teams and disaster management equipment along the coast reassured civic agencies. Not everyone escaped Nivar with a minor penalty, however, and for suburban Chennai, the peak one-day rainfall of 31 cm in Tambaram wrought destruction mirroring what happened five years ago; smaller inland towns have also suffered inundation and severe losses. The aftermath now presents an opportunity to make a full assessment not just for distribution of relief but also to understand the impacts of extreme monsoon weather.

The Tamil Nadu government has shown alacrity in handling the acute challenge of a severe weather event, which has occurred in the run-up to the Assembly election due early next year. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami made field visits, and in parallel, the DMK, as the lead Opposition, mounted its own relief operations. What must worry the two major parties is that periodic papering of the cracks does not offer a sustainable solution to Chennai’s evident civic decay. There is extensive documentation on the loss of its floodplains, lakes and peri-urban wetlands to encroachment, a key factor that is exacerbating monsoon flooding. This land grab is made possible by the benign indulgence of successive governments. What is more, governments have not shown the rigour to collect and publish data on annual flooding patterns, and measure the peak flows in the neglected rivers and canals to plan remedies. Appalling indifference to land use norms has spawned an amorphous housing sector characterised by inflated, speculative prices but no foundation of civic infrastructure. To keep Tamil Nadu competitive, governments and local bodies should hardwire urban planning and invest heavily for a future of frequent disruptive weather.

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