What Chennai floods tells us

 Joe C Mathew        Last Updated: December 7, 2015  | 11:57 IST

Joe Mathew, Senior Associate Editor, Business Today
The record breaking rains that caused floods in Chennai have once again raised the same questions that are asked after every such disaster in the country.  Is it an adverse impact of global warming and the climate change? Or is this a case of poor urban planning?

Both, say experts. Climate change is probably linked to its cause, and short-sighted urban planning is certainly connected to the impact of such disasters. Answers to these questions are well known. Lack of time-bound mitigation action is all what we miss.   

The first possible problem, which relates to climate change, is something on which India has limited control. Shift in climate patterns due to global warming is a consequence of increased carbon emission from across the world. India is ranked among the major polluters today, but the country's contribution is minuscule if you consider the fact that the current problem is caused by historic carbon emissions that have been happening in advanced economies for centuries.

In fact, the Chennai deluge has come at a time when the world has converged in Paris to chalk out long-term strategies to reduce carbon emissions. India wants every developed country that has contributed to this problem over the years to set aside funds and provide technology to help developing nations chart a more sustainable growth path.

The country wants a quick solution as more than the developed world, it has been on the receiving end of all kinds of calamities - floods, cyclones, droughts, tsunamis, avalanches, cloudbursts, landslides, etc. - that are considered to be linked to unpredictable changes in climate patterns.

A World Bank report predicts that in the next 15 years, an additional 100 million people, nearly half of them from India, could get pushed into poverty due to the adverse impact of climate change on agriculture and public health with more frequent disease outbreaks.

India needs to do its bit, but irrespective of whatever mitigation efforts India undertakes, the outcome of the Paris meet will decide the progress of global effort to reduce carbon emissions.    

The second is our own making - India alone has to be blamed for the consequences of reckless urban planning. The 2005 Mumbai floods remind us of our failure to have sustainable plans for our cities, while the landslides and cloudburst that created havoc in gigantic proportions in Himalayan states such as Uttarakhand teach us the need to restrict mindless constructions in ecologically fragile environs.

Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an NGO known for its advocacy for environment friendly policies, has stated that Chennai could have fared better if it had protected and preserved its natural water bodies and drainage channels. In other words, we may not have been able to control the rains, but we could have definitely controlled the flood situation.

CSE points out that the adverse impact of the floods got aggravated because all the natural flood discharge channels of Chennai got blocked because of constructions. "Chennai has only 855 km of storm water drains against 2,847 km of urban roads. Thus, even marginally heavy rainfall causes havoc in the city," it says.

The cloudburst and landslides that happened in Uttarakhand two years ago had even prompted the Supreme Court to ask the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to ascertain whether existing and under-construction hydropower plants and projects in the state contributed to the flood disaster.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's smart city mission is an opportunity to revisit the potential impact of haphazard development that is happening in our urban centres. His pledge towards solar energy should be seen as an opportunity to move away from large scale hydropower projects that can increase the risk of flood disaster.

If we cannot avoid calamities, let us at least minimise the risks.

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