Print edition : November 18, 2005

Heavy rains wreak havoc with life in drought-hit Tamil Nadu. But, even amid the misery, there is cheer in water-starved regions such as Chennai.

in Chennai

On October 25, when the sluices of the Mettur dam were opened.-AP

TORRENTIAL rain battered Tamil Nadu in the last week of October, after four consecutive years of drought. Over 60 persons lost their lives and about two lakh people had to be accommodated in state-run relief centres in Chennai, the capital, and other parts of the State. Crop damage was reported from several districts in the Cauvery delta.

Two days of heavy downpour in Chennai, caused by a depression in the Bay of Bengal and the floods that resulted from intermittent rain for about a fortnight and the release of surplus water that flowed into the Mettur dam from Karnataka, left a trail of destruction and brought misery to thousands of people, whose huts and belongings were washed away. Life was paralysed for more than a week.

A rainfall of 41 cm in 38 hours on October 26-27, of which 21 cm fell in just five hours, pounded Chennai, forcing people to leave their homes to safer places in the small hours of October 27. The rain threw out of gear power supply, transport and telecommunications facilities in most areas of the city. Power supply was cut off in several localities largely for reasons of safety. Traffic flow was affected because of roadblocks caused by the fall of giant trees.

Absence of power supply disrupted the suburban train service, and the State transport authorities operated only a skeleton service. Many offices recorded poor attendance. All train services from Chennai Central were cancelled for a couple of days. Educational institutions were closed and many of them were used to accommodate rain-affected people. Many residential areas were under waist-deep water even two days after the rain abated.

The State government and the Corporation of Chennai arranged for food and shelter to the affected people in scores of relief centres. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa visited some of the affected areas in the State capital to oversee relief work. She deputed ministerial teams to organise relief measures in the city and elsewhere.

Pulianthope in Chennai.-K. PICHUMANI

The damage caused by floods in the districts of Salem, Erode, Namakkal and Karur and in the Cauvery delta region was contained to a substantial extent, thanks to the flood alerts issued by the officials of the State's Public Works Department (PWD) at the Stanley reservoir in Mettur. They were vigilant from the moment the reservoir recorded a sharp increase in the inflow from Karnataka's reservoirs to 96,977 cusecs (cubic feet per second) on the morning of October 23, from 24,051 cusecs the previous day. The dam had received surplus inflow at a moderate rate of 8,000 cusecs after water reached the full reservoir level (FRL) of 120 feet on October 17, for a third time in the current irrigation season.

The surplus was let out through the 16-vent Ellis Saddle, the dam's surplus discharge weir. But the sudden spurt in the inflow on October 23 put the dam officials on high alert. They immediately informed the Salem district administration, which in turn alerted the government, hours before they began releasing the surplus at the same rate as the inflow - over two lakh cusecs. Flood alerts were sounded at 8-30 a.m. Meanwhile, the inflow started increasing menacingly. It jumped to 1,32,869 cusecs at 7 p.m. the same day and crossed the two-lakh mark in the wee hours of October 24. The increase was attributed to the flooded Chinnar river that joined the Cauvery just above the dam with 50,000 cusecs and "possible" discharge from the Krishna Raja Sagar (KRS) dam in Karnataka.

As it was a Sunday, the Tamil Nadu officials could not ascertain from their counterparts in Karnataka the exact quantum of discharge from KRS and the Kabini reservoir. A senior dam official said: "On Sundays and days of crisis, we never get the discharge readings from the Karnataka side. On Saturday night and Sunday morning, the receipts at the Stanley dam were unusually heavy and we were caught unawares. We were not properly informed."

Flooded paddy fields at Pazhur in Tiruchi district.-M. MOORTHY

The readings at the gauging station of the Central Water Commission at Billigundulu, where the waters from Karnataka enter Tamil Nadu, recorded an inflow of 1.20 lakh cusecs on October 23. "Based on that we could sound an alert to the government about possible floods in the Cauvery down the dam," he said.

Acting on the alert, Salem District Collector A. Sukumaran asked officials to be prepared to evacuate people living in the low-lying areas and near the river. Within hours of the surplus discharge crossing the two-lakh mark, the first call for help reached the administration from a group of 27 people stranded at Athukkadu, a tiny village close to Mettur. The village was the first to be marooned by the floodwater. After a team of fire force personnel failed in their two-hour-long efforts to reach the victims, the assistance of the Indian Air Force was sought at the instance of the Chief Minister. An IAF helicopter that came from the Sulur air base rescued all the 27 persons in one sortie.

A farmer with uprooted paddy saplings.-R.M. RAJARATHINAM

The heavy discharges from Mettur and widespread rain in the delta raised the possibility of a breach in the river near Melur in Tiruchi town. The realisation of 2,27,367 cusecs at the Upper Anicut (Mukkombu) on October 25 morning was perhaps the highest recorded over the past four decades. With nearly 70,000 cusecs flowing in the Cauvery, a breach at that point of time could have been disastrous for Srirangam, an important pilgrim centre close to Tiruchi. On the other side of the Srirangam island, the Coleroon was carrying even more water - it flowed at the rate of about 1.5 lakh cusecs. The two rivers had already flooded low-lying areas in Srirangam and Tiruchi, forcing the evacuation of thousands of families.

For many citizens, the situation evoked memories of the deluge of 1977. In fact, the similarities were striking - a breach had occurred in 1977 just a few metres down the spot where the river bund had weakened and developed leaks this time. This time round, the bund, which collapsed partially, was reinforced and secured with sand bags after three days of hard work by district officials, local youth and the Army. More important, the discharge into the Cauvery from the Upper Anicut was reduced in time to save the day.

Early on October 25, half the width of the river bund, running alongside the Malattar, caved in for a stretch of about 50 metres after a couple of trees were uprooted by overnight rain. The district authorities inspected the site and ordered the reinforcement of the bund with sand bags. But by the time personnel and material were moved to the spot it was already noon and water had begun seeping in through the bund. With the bund on the verge of a breach, the district authorities requested the residents of low-lying areas of Srirangam to evacuate.

The enormity of the threat to Srirangam dawned on its residents only by late afternoon. As reports of an impending breach spread, panic gripped its 1.5. lakh people. Some attempted to flee but the majority opted to stay put ignoring the official warning.

The PWD scaled down the discharge into the Cauvery from the Upper Anicut in time to avert the threat. In Srirangam and Tiruchi, many low-lying residential colonies and villages on the banks of the Cauvery and the Coleroon were flooded as the two rivers overflowed. Flood water entered the Akilandeswari-Jambukeswarar temple at Thiruvanaikaval. With the discharge from Mettur coming down the next day, the fear of floods subsided slowly. However, the diversion of water at the rate of over 1.50 lakh cusecs into the Coleroon river caused flooding of several villages on its banks. Banana plantations and paddy fields in four villages were flooded. Agricultural fields were inundated in Musiri, Lalgudi and Thottiyam. In some places, the samba paddy crop, about 15 days old, was damaged.

On the banks of the Cauvery in Tiruchi.-M. MOORTHY

The water receded in the low-lying areas on October 27, nearly after 48 hours. Meanwhile, an 80-member team from the Artillery Regiment in Coimbatore arrived in Tiruchi to reinforce the Cauvery bund at Melur and plug the breach at Ponnurangapuram. Tiruchi District Collector K. Nanda Kishore said that about 30,000 people were affected by the floods and preliminary estimates put the loss in terms of damage to roads/bridges and crops at about Rs.22 crores. A team of four State Ministers, Nainar Nagendran, P. Annavi, C. Karupasamy and S.M. Velusamy, inspected the affected areas and said it would recommend the revival of an old scheme that envisaged construction of a canal for the diversion of flood discharges from the Coleroon to Pudukottai district for irrigation.

On October 26 and 27, the people of Thanjavur saw the Coleroon in spate, the first time in 44 years. When surplus water from Mettur reached the Coleron, the river looked like an ocean. The 1.8-km-wide and 158-km-long river is a major flood carrier, designed during the Chola period to empty surplus waters of the Cauvery into the sea. About 10,000 people were evacuated from 27 villages on the banks of the Coleron as a precautionary measure and accommodated in 18 relief centres.

Paddy crops in 432.5 hectares were submerged. Vegetables and bananas grown on 40 ha too were affected. In Perambalur district, about 1,500 people who were stranded at Ramanallur, a 3 sq km islet, could be rescued only after three days. The menacing water flow in the river deterred officials from despatching relief materials. District Collector D. Vivekanandan permitted the affected people to use the provisions stored in the public distribution outlet until relief could reach them.

The northern parts of Chennai and a few developing areas such as Velachery bore the brunt of the rain because of the failure or inadequacy of the storm water drain system. Even after water receded in most parts of the city, many residential areas in these places remained submerged. In several residential areas people complained that encroachments and constructions close to the storm drain canals blocked floodwater from reaching these outlets. Pointing to a school building at what appeared to be the dead-end of a waterlogged road lined with houses on either side in Velachery, a resident wondered how the town planning authorities cleared such constructions. Such stagnation of rainwater has raised fears about the possible outbreak of diseases. Similar gaps in the preventive aspect of flood control measures have surfaced in the districts also, though the government's relief measures have received acclaim, by and large.

Several Opposition leaders drew attention to the "failure" of the government to take up long-term projects with an eye to minimise the impact of such natural disasters. Deputy general secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and former Mayor of Chennai M.K. Stalin said the failure of the State government and the Chennai Corporation to ensure pre-monsoon desilting and cleaning of storm water drains in the city had resulted in water-logging in several areas. He faulted the government for ignoring maintenance work in the name of cost-cutting. Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator K. Mahendran, whose constituency of Perambur was one of the worst affected areas, said had the two storm drain channels in north Chennai, Otteri Nalla Canal and Captain Cotton Canal, been periodically cleaned and properly maintained, water-logging could have been averted. He blamed the traffic bottleneck and lack of access for the people of north Chennai to the southern parts of the city on the delay in taking up the sanctioned overbridge and flyover works.

Even amid the misery brought in by the floods, the only consoling factor for the people was the hope that there could be a let-up in the acute water scarcity they have long been experiencing. All tanks around Chennai received copious inflow.

With inputs from R. Ilangovan (Salem), S. Ganesan (Tiruchi), G. Srinivasan (Thanjavur) and R. Krishnamoorthy (Perambalur).

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