Government inactive as Chennai faces climate catastrophe

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Indian residents and motorists gather on a flyover as others wade through floodwaters in Chennai on December 3, 2015. Photo: AFP / Strdel

“Every time it rains now, the water from the river floods our villages. We know this is because the factories have encroached upon the river’s floodplains,” says S Mahendran, a fisherman in Chennai’s Ennore district.

Ennore is located about 30 kilometers from the city center and makes up one of India’s densest clusters of heavy industry. Among the big-ticket industrial works here are three large ports, an oil terminal, a coal terminal and two thermal power plants. Most of these lie within kilometers of the coast and are notorious for releasing their effluents into the Ennore creek, via which the River Kosasthalaiyar drains into the sea.

Mahendran adds: “With our area being hit by cyclones and floods so often nowadays, god forbid there is any leak. All our villages will be destroyed if that happens.”

Climate woes

Recurring disasters and extreme weather events have become the new normal for the Indian city.

In November and December 2015, Chennai received 170cm of rainfall, leading to its complete inundation. More than 400 people lost their lives due to the heavy rains and floods and it took nearly two weeks  for some kind of normality to return to the city.

In 2016, there was little chance to reflect, as yet another weather front – Cyclone Vardah – moved in from the Bay of Bengal and blew across Chennai at wind speeds touching 130 km per hour.

The economic toll of these floods and cyclones has been pegged at US$4 billion – and this despite Chennai being part of the European Union’s ‘100 Resilient Cities’ initiative.

What resilience?

In the Ennore region, critical infrastructure and heavy industry currently occupy 1,090 acres of land. “The region was declared a no -development zone because of its ecological sensitivity two decades ago, but this was blatantly ignored,” says Pooja Kumar, part of the city-based environmental group Coastal Resource Centre (CRC). “As we speak there are plans for the extension of a port here by another 1,000 acres.”

With the havoc of previous cyclones fresh in the memory and a new intense weather system predicted to move towards the region later this week, fears have resurfaced.

“We all hope that there is no repeat of the previous years but unfortunately the authorities are just turning a blind eye to major problems that are staring at us in the face,” says Kumar. “Development is not being carried out from a climate-informed perspective. Even Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) for development projects do not take extreme weather or rising sea levels into consideration.”

In the months of November and December 2015, Chennai received 1,700mm of rainfall, leading to its complete inundation. (Photo: climatesignals.org)

In the months of November and December 2015, Chennai received 1,700mm of rainfall, leading to its complete inundation. Photo: climatesignals.org

Chennai is the largest city in Tamil Nadu, a state which will be among the worst areas affected globally by a rise in sea levels. A 2012 report by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Space Application Centre (SAC) states that 3209.33 sq.km of Tamil Nadu’s coast is likely to be submerged because of rising seas.

A more recent report, prepared by the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission (TNSPC), makes more apocalyptic speculations, warning that the seven power plants (both nuclear and thermal) situated along the city’s coastlines are all at grave risk due to rising sea levels. It estimates that by 2050, 356 sq.km of Chennai’s land area, and more than 2.8 million people living in this region, will be at risk. It also estimates economic damage to the tune of US$164 billion.

An ostrich attitude

While the reports pile up, little seems to change on the ground. As Saravanan Kasi, also from the CRC, says: “The issue is that there’s no acknowledgment that there is a problem. Acknowledgement doesn’t mean to have a law and produce reports, it means to start acting on it.” The TNSPC report, despite its starting claims, has not been made available to the public. On obtaining a copy, Asia Times attempted to contact Sugato Dutt, Head of Division (Land Use) at TNSPC to ask him about this, but he declined to comment.

Avilash Roul, principal scientist at the Indo-German Center for Sustainability (IGCS), based in Chennai, says: “The city’s critical infrastructure could be at risk due to rising sea levels and unfortunately there seems to be no preparation for climate resilience.”

The TNSPC report recommends the integration of climate change considerations into all developments. It also suggests spreading awareness regarding climate resilience, especially among the millions of who fish along the state’s coastline, since they will be the first to bear the brunt of any impacts.

It even suggests rudimentary things like properly maintaining the Tamil Nadu State Climate Chance Cell’s (TNCCC) website, which is permanently down. As Roul told Asia Times: “Climate change doesn’t really wait for politics or accommodate bureaucratic red tape.”

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