Flood Disasters: Chennai a snooze alarm

Disasters like the Chennai floods leading to loss of life and property could repeat itself if we do not wake up to our current needs of urban planning, which play a major role in mitigating losses

Flood Disasters: Chennai a snooze alarm
To lay a good drainage plan for a city and implement the same, you need skilled planning, designing as well as execution engineers. (Reuters photo)

While history repeats itself, we do not seem to be learning from the past experiences. One after the other, whether it was Guwahati, Mumbai, Srinagar or Chennai, each time is a repeat of the same misery, loss of life, destruction of property, millions in relief and business as usual after the crisis is over. What we need to do is to analyse each of these urban flood water disasters carefully, isolate the problems and issues and make preparatory actions for prevention. Unfortunately this is not being done.

A flood is the inundation of land by unusually large amounts of water. Floods are often caused by excessive rainfall, causing rivers and waterways to overrun their normal channels and spread out across the adjacent land.

Almost all the state governments in India have Flood Control Departments and river Irrigation Departments. To manage city water systems, there are Public Health Engineering Departments as well. Also, there are Development Authorities and Municipal Corporations. Master Plans for most of the large cities also exist. Even then, what we only see is a blame game and nothing more.

Haphazard urban expansion

We need to understand that human settlements traditionally have always originated close to a water source, invariably a river. Further, human settlements traditionally developed on the highest part of the surrounding geography, so that in the event of excessive rain, the buildings would be safe from both rain as well as the rising flood water in the river. Walk into any of the urban villages in Delhi and you will find that you invariably have to walk up your way into the village, as the village is always located on a highland. Further, traditionally, buildings always had a high plinth— climb up steps in order to enter a house. However, in the modern day, as the settlement expands and spreads, the market value of surrounding lands, even low lands, increases and get occupied. Further, the high plinths have also gone out of fashion, thanks to rising costs of construction. In the absence of scientifically planned and executed drainage systems, this is the starting point for disasters, even in normal rains, leave alone excessive rains!


Cities are hubs of employment generation. They also hold a huge potential for self-employment of a varied kind. Agglomeration economy attracts the poor and the rural into the city. Obviously, with limited means and state support being almost non-existent, they are forced to live on the margins! Low lying areas get encroached upon by squatters. There is hardly any policing and even if there is, an unholy nexus gets created to only perpetuate this phenomenon even further. Obviously, in the event of a disaster, they are the first casualty.

Illegal land colonisation

One of the assets that has been in great demand in our cities is property. With formal supply being too slow to come by and too costly to afford, informal property options and supply systems get created to cater to a huge low income market. An unholy nexus has existed here too. Huge tracts of land, often without designed infrastructure, are developed and people start getting on with their lives. Just before elections, these illegal land subdivisions / unauthorized colonies get ‘regularised’. These are in fact incubators of vote banks.

In the national capital, just before the 2014 general elections, hundreds of such illegal colonies housing lakhs of people, with hardly any drainage or sewerage facilities, have been ‘regularised’ ; stamped OK. In big cities, the situation is not very different. 25 to 40 percent of Indian urban citizens live in illegal colonies which do not have any drainage. What happens to them in the event of a flood is anybody’s guess. We have witnessed the disaster too many times.

Breaking the natural courses

The natural lay of the land leads to the development of natural drainage channels, often referred to as nalahs. Whenever it rains, water takes to the natural slopes, water courses, nalahs and goes from the higher to the lower elevation. Whenever urban development happens on these channels, these get disturbed. Encroachments along these natural channels, dumping solid waste, natural silting, bank erosion among others have been problems which have been rarely attended to. Dredging rarely happens.

For quite some time, covering up these nalahs had become a fad, not realising its repercussions. Now, since the area of percolation decreases, runoff increases and the shrinking water courses actually have to carry much more water now than previously. All this makes a good recipe for disasters. Whenever the natural systems are broken, nature reacts, often in a violent manner as seen again and again.

Lack of technical skill

To lay a good drainage plan for a city and implement the same, you need skilled planning, designing as well as execution engineers. Unfortunately, planning engineers are almost a non-existing breed, at least in the area of hydraulics, flood engineering and public health engineering. The situation with design engineers may be a slight shade better. In India only about a dozen flood engineering courses are offered and lesser is the count of public health engineering courses. We churn out too few professionals who have the technical knowledge to comprehend, plan design and execute such specialised works. Youngsters in India want to be software and IT engineers.

Severe funding limitations

Most funding agencies operate on the principle of cost recovery and commercial viability. Flood control and city drainage works are not private goods or services and hence difficult to charge. Neither is there awareness about the importance of committing funds for such projects, nor is there visibility for politicians to make them count before the citizens. Spending on a flyover or a statue provides more visibility than underground pipelines. This sector has unfortunately received little attention and funding. Further, the task itself being so complex, as in most cases one needs to retrofit systems into existing settlements. The sheer magnitude of funding required for a comprehensive scheme is very lumpy.

Masterplanning not enough

This time round, the media got into bashing the town planners; that there is not enough urban planning in our cities. Unfortunately, when generalists speak, ignorance spreads. Most people do not know what a masterplan is and expect the master plan to cover everything. A masterplan is not a panacea for all urban ills. A masterplan is a broad vision document and lays down the general framework. The details are to be worked out by other specialised engineering agencies. Governments have to arrange for funds for implementation. Maintenance of what is implemented is yet another task that comes later. Urban planners are not mandated to implement plans which they prepare. There are other agencies who undertake the task. Building a city is a multi-stakeholder task. Hence, blaming a town planner for flooding is perhaps akin to blaming the doctor when you get a heart attack.

Poor urban governance

Finally, the system of urban governance that we have inherited has to change. Western systems of urban governance cannot work in an Indian situation. We need to develop our own system suited to our own peculiarities. Without technology, skilled manpower and funds, the basic infrastructure for urban flood control cannot be laid. Indian cities are still grappling with basic urban infrastructure issues even after decades of urban governance. In the same breath, one needs to understand that the world over, there have been urban floods of devastating magnitudes, despite all the good infrastructure. Not long ago, the flood in New Orleans, USA had driven home this point. Thus the significance of urban flooding, particularly in India which has a long coastline and the threat of global warming and climate change looming large, cannot be underestimated.

Guwahati, Mumbai, Srinagar or Chennai, each of these have been snooze alarms of even greater urban disasters in the coming, but when are we going to wake up? Are we waiting for yet another wake-up call to get our act together? Water always finds its own level and takes everybody along. State and municipal governments have to collectively decide our urban future seriously and act on preventive lines.

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First published on: 20-12-2015 at 07:28 IST