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It is becoming a standing joke in Chennai that schools might as well write off two months in the year — November and December. Since 2015, when the northeast monsoon season descended as a cataclysm on a city that was scarcely prepared for it, the impending monsoon brings a measure of foreboding and trepidation to residents.

Three years on, the level of preparedness leaves much to be desired. The first showers were intense and left many parts in a shambles — water-logging on the roads and water entering homes in low-lying areas, while on a night of particularly heavy rain, the entire city slowed down in waters that flowed on the roads, not unlike waves crashing on the shore.

Why is it so vulnerable?

As the city grew and expanded beyond its core, it was built over water bodies that were cleared out to make space for human settlements.

As more and more people moved to urban areas, these settlements filled out and the resources soon grew inadequate for the burgeoning population dependent on them.

Natural draining paths were built over. In addition, years of rampant encroachment on waterbodies and lake beds did not help. Inadequate monsoon preparation, in terms of desilting tanks and deepening water channels and stormwater drains and removing encroachment, has not been adequately addressed across the city and suburbs, residents say.

Did drought stop greater damage?

The monsoon of 2017 came, in fact, after a summer of drought, as the city struggled to find water from multiple sources to meet its drinking water needs. Chennai district has so far registered 674.8 mm of rain this season. This is 70% more than the average of 397.9 mm for the season. Though in the first heavy spell of November, Chennai recorded 30 cm of rain, on subsequent days, the volume of rainfall came down, and the rain spells too were relieved by short dry periods. The city’s four reservoirs that had dried out are still only over a third full.

And yet, water-logging in the southern suburbs continued, and people had to move away, afraid that the next shower would lead to a repeat of the nightmare of 2015.

In many places, inexplicably, roads were dug up to undertake waterline/storm-water and sewer line repairs though it is common knowledge that the northeast monsoon wings its way at October-end.

According to initial estimates by the Chennai Corporation, at least 15% of the 471 bus route roads were damaged. Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami admitted last Sunday that 115 places were still waterlogged in the city and its suburbs and attributed it to the heavy downpour over five days. The State government has asked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for Rs. 1,500 crore to handle relief work.

What happened in 2015?

In retrospect, scientists co-related the unprecedented heavy rain between November 30 and December 2 in 2015 to an active El Nino year. It is true that the quantum of rainfall was high, but it was not the rain alone that was responsible for the disaster that followed.

A key element that is still being pointed out was the reportedly tardy release of excess water from Chembarambakkam lake, which flooded the entire city and led to the loss of many lives and property worth several crores. Improper silting of waterways and stormwater drains, rampant encroachments that stood solidly in the path of the water, giving residents very little or insufficient warning to leave their homes, as the floodwaters raced to the city — in a post mortem analysis, these factors stand out too. Water entered homes, over several floors, and washed out people and their possessions.

What next?

Environmental activists insist that drastic action to evict encroachers and those who sit on waterbodies must be taken. Better preparedness of official machinery to face the floods across the city, as some pockets faced this November, is crucial. It is the only way a natural calamity is not exacerbated by man-made errors, they point out.

Ramya Kannan

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