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TN’s urban planning ignores climate change threat, causing huge losses

Close on the heels of crippling rain and flood in Chennai during 2021, the 2023 monsoon has wreaked havoc in the city and later in the Thoothukudi – Tirunelveli belt in Tamil Nadu. It is becoming clear that the pattern of urbanisation and urban planning in the State has exposed communities to severe economic losses due to a weak model that does not take natural calamities into account.

Until 2023, the massive flood of 2015 remained the reference point to gauge the severity of economic losses, although there were two years of torrential rainfall in 1996 and 1997. According to Swiss Re, the reinsurance company, the total losses in 2015 in Chennai were an estimated $ 2.2 billion, of which about $700 million were covered by insurance and they mainly pertained to commercial and manufacturing entities.

Lessons ignored
Not many lessons were learned from 2015, which turned out to be a hybrid event involving a natural disaster caused by the monsoon, and bad management of reservoir storage levels by the Tamil Nadu government (18,000 cusecs of water was released from Chemparambakkam on November 17, 2015 creating flood havoc and killing many people).

The weather literature for Tamil Nadu records major flood events in 2005, 2015, 2021 and now 2023. Evidently, the inter-flood maxima, the period between floods, has been narrowing, with a catastrophe striking the State particularly along the coast every few years. This year, the slow-moving Cyclone Michaung dumped between 20 and 34 cm of rain each in two consecutive 24-hour periods on December 4 and 5, devastating the inner city and marooning residential communities in the suburbs. There are bound to be severe losses to individuals and the economy as a whole, and these are yet to be estimated.

Also Read: Expert panel for flood in Chennai wanted transparency, but . . .

Much has been written now about why the impact of such extremes is felt more in the city. Data for annualised rainfall for Chennai since the 1990s points to an average that is mostly over 200 cm, with some outlier years like 2005 exceeding even the 2015 level at Nungambakkam at 256 cm.

What has changed over the years is the collective philosophy on urban development, of the State government, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), the Greater Chennai Corporation and the suburban local bodies. Chennai pioneered the concept of regularisation to endorse violating buildings on payment of a fine, and over the years, the trend has grown stronger due to rampant corruption. Most small and medium builders openly tell buyers going in for joint venture rebuilding, that there is an in-built bribe component in the price of Chennai property.

One case involving an IT company and its construction proposal in Sholinganallur was cited by the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption as evidence of bribery involving CMDA. The “DVAC’s enquiries revealed the then Minister for Housing and Urban Development deliberately delayed the approval of the planning permit to facilitate the demand for bribes in March 2014,” a media report said.

Wetland losses continue
The floods of 2021 and 2023 have had a more devastating impact due to the loss of urban wetlands, and rampant constructions coming up on the eastward floodplain of the city. Velachery is the most high profile case in recent times of a lake built over. Lakes in the inner city including Nungambakkam disappeared decades ago.

The Pallikaranai marsh shrank to a tenth of its original size, and now measures about 600 hectares, and even this rump of the wetland continues to be polluted. An addition to the list of sub-prime areas during the 2023 flood was Perumbakkam, which has more than its share of gated properties sitting around lakes and in floodplains.

Also Read: Turn Chennai floods into Chennai water supply: TN government must deepen its water pockets

These painful truths were quickly pointed out during the current year’s flood, but that has not prompted the official agencies to stop further sale of properties in these fragile areas. As the waters were pumped out across the city, the property ads for lakeview properties were back in the media.

Public attention was quickly turned to the disbursal of a small cash relief of Rs.6,000 mainly to priority households in the PDS, and high profile arguments with the Union government over its foot-dragging and loud put-downs of the DMK regime over flood relief and alleged lack of preparedness.

Affected areas in Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli and neighbouring districts are bound to follow the same route of cash relief and written claims by Income Tax assessees for relief.

Back to inspections
With the Thiruppugazh Committee on floodproofing Chennai still fresh in the minds of the public post-2021, there are reports that it is now carrying out inspections on how effectively its recommendations have been implemented. The report submitted by the panel is not in the public domain.

If the committee is to achieve any results at all, there has to be an urgent consultation with the government on earmarking land survey numbers where no further development should be allowed. This would logically cover the floodplain, a radius of a few kilometres around Pallikaranai and other vulnerable lakes and their interconnecting channels.

Such a proposal would be immediately rejected because of the impact it would have on property speculators who have had a free run for three decades. An alternative would be for the government to levy stiff urban development fees on these speculator-builders, earmarking the funds for urgent construction of canals and new wetlands to hold floodwaters in areas identified by the Thiruppugazh committee. This will also help raise drinking water security.

A more radical engineering solution being proposed by some experts is to construct massive underground water storage in the vulnerable areas, which could be linked to canals and channels on the lines of the typhoon management structures in Southeast Asia.

A case for automatic insurance
One report produced by Swiss Re on climate adaptation and mitigation in anticipation of more frequent extreme weather events says public calamity insurance should be instituted for all manner of disasters. This would go beyond the Centre-State arrangements under the Disaster Management Act, and would be based not on damage assessments but on metrics such as rainfall level, drought and other risks to be described including earthquakes and lightning strikes.

If rainfall or the lack of it measured by the government exceeds a certain threshold, automatic payments would be triggered into the bank accounts of insurance policyholders. This would be a social insurance model, having both universality and scale, and avoid the transactions involved in getting relief under the influence of the party in power, which effectively subsumes the State government.

This has happened in the current flood, and the relief disbursal has been marked by confusion due to the role played by partisan interests, although the bureaucracy was keen to have a level playing field. There is no clarity on what taxpaying citizens will get, based on their declarations filed after the December deluge.

Swiss Re points to a threshold based insurance model already tried in Nagaland, with positive results.

The Tamil Nadu government has come forward to present a white paper on floodproofing Chennai based on the Thiruppugazh panel’s interim report. It must do the same for the other vulnerable cities and towns. How it has fared in implementing mitigation measures with World Bank assistance under the $ 337.2 million Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Coastal Disaster Risk Reduction Project sanctioned in 2013 and last updated in 2021 is something that the people of the State deserve to know. A white paper will also help plan other interventions.

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