Disaster

Rain & ruin

Print edition : December 11, 2015

A woman salvaging her belongings at Purushothaman Nagar in Cuddalore on November 11. Photo: S.S. Kumar

Residents of CTO Colony in West Tambaram being evacuated on November 17. Tambaram received 33 cm of rainfall in a single day. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

An IAF helicopter airlifts stranded residents of Varadarajapuram in Kancheepuram district on November 16. Photo: G. Krishnaswamy

Carcasses of cattle that were washed away in the floods under the Kurinjipadi bridge in Cuddalore district on November 12. Photo: S.S. Kumar

A paddy field submerged in rainwater at Kurinjipadi near Neyveli. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The Buckingham Canal at Sholinganallur in Chennai on November 16. Photo: M. Karunakaran

Even as the Buckingham Canal overflows on the road linking Old Mahabalipuram Road and East Coast Road, a PWD announcement dating back to 2010 claims that the project to prevent flooding would be completed in 18 months. It even gives the contractor’s name. Photo: M. Karunakaran

Fire and Rescue Services personnel evacuating residents of Pari Nagar in Jafferkhanpet in Chennai, after the Adyar river began to swell.

When the sluices of the Chembarambakkam reservoir near Chennai opened on the morning of November 16. Photo: M. Vedhan

The northern side of the Pallikaranai marsh in Chennai encroached upon by housing colonies and hospitals and information technology companies. Photo: S. VENKATARAAMAN

The 3,000-acre Pallikaranai marsh in Chennai, which retains water and helps in keeping the groundwater table high, has been taken over by realtors in the past few years. The picture shows housing colonies coming up on the southern side of the marsh. A realtor has separated the area with a compound wall. Photo: S. VENKATARAAMAN

After the ballast holding the railway track was washed away by flash floods at Ellappankottai near Kurinjipadi in Cuddalore district. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The monsoon havoc in Tamil Nadu points to serious lapses on the part of the government in urban planning and the maintenance of waterbodies.

“THIS is the first time in 21 years since we built this house that I have had to vacate fearing inundation,” a woman said poignantly as she and her family members began to move out of their home in South Sriram Nagar in rain-battered West Tambaram on the outskirts of Chennai on the evening of November 15. There was ankle-deep water in the verandah of her house; the water level rose up to three feet overnight. Mudichur Road at the end of her street, which was concretised just a year ago, was like a river in spate, with its median submerged.

Other families in localities that lay to the west of the Chennai-Bengaluru bypass road that slices through West Tambaram were rudely woken up by the sudden surge of waters. They were helped by the Tamil Nadu Fire and Rescue Services (TNFRS) personnel, as early as 3 a.m., to move to safer places. The ordeal had begun, and the sound of the rotors of the Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter in the distance at the crack of dawn made people of West Tambaram realise that there was more to the havoc than the eye could see.

The deluge caused immense loss of property: Houses were submerged in Varadarajapuram and Thirumudivakkam along Chennai Outer Ring Road and Bharathi Nagar, Jothi Nagar, CTO Colony, and Harita Enclave in West Tambaram. Vehicles went under the swelling waters, and shops were inundated. The water had risen up to a height of 10 feet at Varadarajapuram, the worst-affected area in Kancheepuram district. Hundreds of people were winched to safety by IAF helicopters or evacuated in boats by the Army, the Navy, the National Disaster Relief Force and the TNFRS personnel.

What aggravated the situation was the filling up of the lakes at Mudichur, Manimangalam, Perungalathur and Irumbuliyur near these localities. The Pappan Kalvai, a canal that serves the purpose of carrying the excess water from the Perungalathur lake and drains into the Adyar river some distance away from CTO Colony, was already overflowing. The canal was not deep and wide enough to carry the surplus water and was narrow and encroached upon, some residents said. The encroachment was demolished by the Public Works Department four days after the disaster, and this and the breaking of the Kishkinta Road with the help of an earth mover to create a culvert helped the sea of water that had engulfed these localities to drain out.

Further, the encroachment of the lakes and even the drainage systems in the area has impacted their water storing and carrying capacity. R. Srinivasan, a retired bank employee who lives in Sriram Nagar, said water rushed into Krishna Nagar because people living along the Perungalathur lake cut the bund fearing for their safety when the torrential rains filled up the lake.

Korattur, Old Washermanpet, Padi, Villivakkam, Vysarpadi and other localities in north Chennai, and Velachery, a low-lying area, and Kotturpuram in south Chennai, were among the other worst-affected areas, where hundreds of people living in middle-class localities had to be evacuated in boats.

If blocked drainage systems and breached waterbodies flooded localities in the north and south of the city, a few hundred houses in Bethel Nagar and Thiruvalluvar Nagar in Neelankarai along East Coast Road (ECR) in coastal Chennai were drowned in sewage water dumped by the overflowing Buckingham Canal. Somewhere in the middle of Dr Kalaignar Karunanidhi Salai, linking ECR with Old Mahabalipuram Road, is a broad bridge under which the canal flows. On either side of the bridge, on the water spread of the canal, vast swathes of water hyacinth choke the flow of water. Ironically, adjacent to the bridge, a board announces in Tamil: “Public Works Department, Water Resources Organisation. Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM), Chennai. Works relating to draining of flood waters. Name of the project: Deepening and widening of the south Buckingham Canal from Oggiyam Madu to Muttukadu. Estimated cost of the project: Rs.78.14 crore. Project duration: 18 months. Contractor’s name: M/S B.V.S.R. Construction (P) Ltd. Chennai-40. The project’s commencement date: 16.07.2010.”

After the downpour had ended on November 16, J. Vijayakumar and his pack of 10 pet dogs, and many families were rescued by the TNFRS personnel from their homes in Bethel Nagar, which is sandwiched between the canal and ECR.

G. Giri (33), a local resident, said: “This area has been flooded because the canal has not been desilted and de-weeded.”

Tamil Nadu receives most of its rainfall from the north-east monsoon. Ever since the onset of the monsoon on October 28, not a day passed until November 7 when some part or the other of the State received some amount of rainfall.

“The monsoon picked up from November 8 and reached its peak on November 15,” said S. Bagulayan Thampi, Deputy Director General of Meteorology and Head, Regional Meteorological Centre (RMC), Chennai.

Heavy rainfall

A trough of low pressure formed on November 7 and lay centred 300 kilometres off the Puducherry coast over the Bay of Bengal the next day. The State received widespread rain from November 8. A number of places, including Ambasamudram, Manimutharu, Mettur, Papanasam, Ramanathapuram, Salem, Tirunelveli and Tiruvarur received rainfall. The trough of low pressure intensified into a low pressure area, well-marked low pressure area and then a depression.

Rain started pounding Cuddalore, Bhuvanagiri, Chidambaram, Lalpettai, Panruti, Parangipettai, Sethiathope and Vriddhachalam in the coastal district of Cuddalore. There was incessant downpour from November 9, which continued without let-up until the morning of November 10, Deepavali day. When the State was recovering from the first weather system, the second one, a well-marked low pressure area, occurred between November 12 and 16, and hammered Chennai and its suburbs and the neighbouring districts of Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur with more than 35 cm of rain between 8.30 a.m. on November 15 and 8.30 a.m. the following day. Several areas in Cuddalore district (which is yet to recover from the havoc wreaked by the cyclone Thane on December 30, 2011), received “extremely heavy rainfall” in the 24 hours ended 8.30 a.m. on November 10. Neyveli received 48 cm, Panruti 35 cm, Sethiathope and Chidambaram 34 cm each, and Parangipettai 33 cm. Cuddalore town received 11 cm and Vriddhachalam 19 cm. For the same period, Tirukoilur in the adjoining Villupuram district received 21 cm of rainfall, Dharmapuri 21 cm, and Sathanur dam in Tiruvannamalai district 19 cm. Rains hammered the coastal district of Nagapattinam and the interior districts of Dharmapuri, Krishnagiri, Namakkal, Perambalur and Salem. As the scale of destruction in Cuddalore and Villupuram districts became clear, Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa despatched teams of Ministers and Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers to supervise relief work.

Explaining why so much rain occurred over so many districts, Bagulayan Thampi said the three weather formations—trough of low pressure, low pressure area and well-marked low pressure area—generally moved slowly and brought continuous rain. The rain was generally well distributed and covered a big area. These low pressure systems were beneficial because rainwater would percolate. “A depression moves fast and the effect of the depression will last only a few hours. So the accumulated rainfall received will be less. Since a depression moves fast [and dumps rains], flash floods will occur and the benefits will be less,” he said.

Cuddalore battered

The rains that lashed between November 7 and 10 made mincemeat of Cuddalore district. Officials, caught by surprise by the intensity of the rains, suddenly discharged the water from the Veeranam and Perumal lakes. This led to water entering scores of villages situated around their banks and on the bunds of channels and sub-channels branching from them. There was heavy damage to property and crops in Neyveli, Panruti, Kurinchippadi, Chidambaram and Cuddalore town. Gusts of winds snapped overhead electricity lines, uprooted electricity transformers and swung around lamp posts. Rising waters from the Gedilam, the Paravanaru and other rivers engulfed scores of villages. Visur was one of the worst-affected villages in the district. Waters from the Vellavari river flooded the village. Flood waters dumped mud on several hundred hectares of cultivable land in Visur, rendering the land unfit for cultivation. Floods in the Gedilam washed away the road between Visur and Panruti. Standing crops and cashewnut groves on thousands of acres (one acre=0.4 hectare) in Vinjur and Periyakattupalayam villages were damaged. Paddy, sugarcane and banana groves on 2.5 lakh acres in the district were ruined. Fifty-three people lost their lives, and about 25,000 houses were damaged fully and 50,000 partially. Boats were damaged in fishing villages. Low bridges were smashed to pieces by the rushing waters at Tirumanikuzhi, Saathipattu and Palapattu. The rains mangled the highway between Chidambaram and Cuddalore in many places.

Eight members of a family of Veeramani, a Dalit labourer, were washed away in Periyakattupalayam when floodwaters entered their hut. The current was so strong that there was no sign of the hut in which they lived. Veeramani lost his wife, three sons, a daughter, father and others. The waters damaged 130 concrete houses belonging to Dalits in Periyakattupalayam.

G. Ramakrishnan, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), broke down when he saw what remained of the hut where Veeramani and his family had lived. Only a few books of Siva, the school-going son of Veeramani, lay on the ground. Tears welled up in the eyes of K. Balakrishnan, the CPI (M) Member of the Legislative Assembly from Chidambaram. “The government should find out which lake breached its bank and destroyed this village,” Ramakrishnan said.

He added: “All the destruction and damage have occurred because the lakes have not been tended to for many years. In many districts, the singular reason for damage [to property and crops] is that the waterbodies have not been maintained properly. The breaches took place because the lakes have not been deepened and their bunds made strong. Rivers and streams should have been de-weeded to allow the flow of water. No precautionary steps were taken although it was announced that the north-east monsoon had set in.”

Chennai & Kancheepuram face the brunt

After the first system (which intensified into a depression) weakened on November 9, another system formed over the South Andaman coast. It was now the turn of Chennai and the neighbouring Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts to face the monsoon fury.

A new trough of low pressure formed in the South Andaman Sea on November 12 and weathermen predicted that it would intensify into a low pressure area in the south-east Bay of Bengal. It started raining hard in Chennai, Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts from November 13. Rains continued the next day as the system had intensified into a low pressure area and a well-marked low pressure area.

For the 24 hours ended 8.30 a.m. on November 16, the system dumped 37 cm of rain in Ponneri in Tiruvallur district, 33 cm each in Tambaram and Mamallapuram and 32 cm in Chengalpattu town, all in Kancheepuram district, and 28 cm each in the catchment areas of Puzhal, Chembarambakkam, Red Hills and Cholavaram lakes near Chennai.

Chennai Airport, suburban Kelambakkam, Kancheepuram town and Marakkanam town were drenched with 27 cm of rainfall. Avadi, Taramani, and Nugambakkam in Chennai received more than 25 cm and Poonamallee, about 30 km from Chennai, received 22 cm, while Poondi, a reservoir 60 km from Chennai, received 19 cm of rainfall.

Kancheepuram district, dotted with 912 lakes, was the worst affected because lake after lake breached its bund. While the lakes at Guduvanchery, Manimangalam, Perungalathur and Vandalur overflowed, flooding the low-lying residential localities with no fool-proof drainage system, what aggravated the situation was the release of surplus water from Chembarambakkam, which ran head-on into the outflow from the Vandalur, Perungalathur and Manimangalam lakes towards the Adyar river.

A distraught looking R. Ramesh described how Periyar Samathuva Nagar and other areas near Varadarajapuram were flooded. “When the water from the Manimangalam lake overflowed and our houses were surrounded by three feet of water, the surplus water from Chembarambakkam was released at the same time. The water from Manimangalam could not make headway against the fast-flowing current of the Chembarambakkam water. So the water spread everywhere and started to rise several feet high. Besides, the canals and drainage systems that drain rain water into the Adyar have not been cleaned. All this led to so much of damage,” he explained.

Several hundreds of residents of Periyar Samathuva Nagar were rescued and taken in boats to safety. Flood waters rose to a height of 2.75 metres.

The TNFRS personnel told this reporter that they reached Varadarajapuram, Harita Enclave, Jothi Nagar and other areas on November 13 itself and requested the residents to move out of their homes. When the rains strengthened the next day, they went to these housing colonies again and appealed to the people to move to safer places.

“But the people were reluctant to move out of their houses. When the water level rose further, we appealed to them once again to vacate, but they did not heed our advice. When the flood waters reached a height of more than 10 feet and engulfed their localities, they wanted to be rescued,” said a young fireman. R. Suryaprakash, Station Fire Officer, Guindy, did many rounds of rowing people to safety. At least 20 boats were pressed into service in CTO Colony and Haritha Enclave.

Reasons for flooding

Politicians and environmental activists have cited three reasons for the vast scale of flooding: (1) The failure of the previous Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government and the present All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government to desilt and de-weed waterbodies in the past nine years. The DMK and the AIADMK, they said, paid no attention to repairing the sluices of reservoirs and big lakes and deepening the waterbodies and strengthening their bunds.

Besides, there was no initiative to dredge the silted-up mouths of rivers (see box).

(2) Rapid and mindless urbanisation in the floodplains of the Adyar and Cooum rivers in Chennai and the fragmentation of the Pallikaranai marsh have led to disruption in the tidal flow, as there is no space for retaining the backwaters.

(3) Hundreds of huts have mushroomed around the lake bunds, and when the lakes overflow during an active monsoon, hut dwellers cut the bund to release the excess water, which floods the regular housing colonies in the vicinity.

The floodplains

T.K. Ramkumar, advocate and environmental activist, who has studied the waterbodies in the State, blamed the present flooding of Chennai city to the surplus water from Chembarambakkam being discharged into the Adyar, which courses through the outskirts of West Tambaram, Anakaputhur, and Nandambakkam before it enters Chennai city. (At Anakaputhur, the surging water washed away the railings on the bridge.) Flooding occurred along the Adyar because the channels from the river were not suited to carry such a large quantity of water, he said. So housing colonies, which had come up along the floodplains of the Adyar, were swamped. For instance, Kotturpuram, situated on the floodplains of the Adyar, was inundated.

Citing another reason for the Adyar breaching its banks and inundating areas in south Chennai, Ramkumar said a flood retention wall was built along the river at Jaffarkhanpet to reduce the volume of water flowing into the river. But when the surplus water from Chembarambakkam was discharged into the river, the water backed up because the retention wall ran for a short distance only. Where the wall ended, the water spread rapidly, inundating a vast area.

Another reason for the inundation is rapid urbanisation with new housing colonies coming up at Madipakkam and Nanganallur, situated in the floodplains of the Adyar. “The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority is to blame for this. They are not encroachments but legal entities,” the environmental activist said.

Massive encroachments in the form of orphanages, private houses, schools, garages for repairing trucks, or parking lots for trucks have taken place in the Cooum riverbed, near Tiruverkadu and Vanagaram.

“So the Cooum has to manoeuvre its way to reach the Bay of Bengal” in Chennai, Ramkumar said. “The High Court has given judgments against the encroachment of waterbodies,” he said, suggesting that the law of the land does not allow it, yet there are unauthorised constructions.

The fragmentation of the Pallikaranai marsh, which was originally spread over a few thousand acres, by realtors who have built massive buildings on it has led to the flooding of the nearby areas. Until a few years ago, the marsh served a wonderful purpose. The water that the marsh received from the monsoon rains would percolate and recharge the groundwater in the entire area around it. So the water table was always high. In fact, the realtors are taking over the Pallikaranai marsh in stages, constructing buildings step by step. Jayalalithaa, who returned to Chennai on November 8 from her retreat in the Kodanad tea estates in the Nilgiris, went around her R.K. Nagar Assembly constituency on November 16.

The same day, to score a political point, she went around the Kolathur constituency, represented by M.K. Stalin of the DMK, and Perambur constituency, which elected A. Soundararajan of the CPI (M).

At R.K. Nagar, she claimed that she had instructed the civic and police officials to take precautionary steps before the onset of the north-east monsoon, and they followed her advice.

“However, the north-east monsoon, which should bring rainfall over a period of three months, dumped all the rain in a few days. Therefore, whatever may be the precautionary steps taken, stagnation of water in a few places and the consequent damage cannot be avoided,” she airily argued.

Stalin riposted, “Jayalalithaa, who came to R.K. Nagar day before yesterday, said big damage had occurred because the rains, which should occur over a period of three months, came down in just three days. What I want to know is why did she not take precautionary steps three months in advance?”

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