Chennai Floods: Wake up call for saving disappearing water bodies


By Nithin Sridhar

The Chennai flood situation has once again brought forward the ugly results of mindless urbanization that is driven by greed and have no regard for environmental concerns.

Chennai has recorded the highest rainfall in the last 100 years. The houses, buildings, and the streets have all been flooded with water. There is a huge loss to life and property. But, much of this could have been avoided if only the city planners and builders had given proper consideration to the environmental impacts of rapid urbanization.

According to the press note released by the Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), unregulated urbanization and climate change-induced extreme weather are the reasons behind the crisis in Chennai. It further states that rapid urbanization leads to the destruction of natural drainage systems, thus increasing their vulnerability to flooding.

CSE Director General Sunita Narain said: “In Chennai, each of its lakes has a natural flood discharge channel which drains the spillover. But we have built over many of these water bodies, blocking the smooth flow of water. We have forgotten the art of drainage. We only see land for buildings, not for water.”

Thus, the CSE press note clearly links the Chennai flood situation with the disappearing of natural water bodies, which in turn is caused due to urbanization.

Natural water bodies play a very significant role in not only fulfilling human needs for water but also in keeping ecological balance. Urban water bodies, be it lakes or tanks, supply water for various domestic and industrial activities. The tank water also penetrates through the soil and recharge the groundwater. They are the major sources of fresh drinking water. And lastly, as they link to rivers and canals, they help to carry excess water during heavy rains.

But, in the absence of these tanks and lakes that act as a natural drainage system, the runoff water from the rains have no place to go, thus causing flooding of the cities. Further, lack of water tanks results in the scarcity of fresh water.

Rapid urbanization with complete disregard for ecological concerns is the single most important factor that has resulted in the disappearance of water tanks.

Consider the case of Chennai, in the 19th century, the Madras area had at least 43,000 functioning water tanks. Just two decades ago, there were at least 650 water bodies. But, today only a fraction (less than 30) of them remains.

The situation is more or less similar in other cities as well. Bengaluru had around 262 water bodies in 1960. But, today there are only 81, out of which only 34 can be recognized as live lakes. Ahmedabad had 137 lakes a decade ago out of which 65 lakes have already been built over. In Delhi, a survey last year identified 611 water bodies, out of which 274 already dried up and another 190 that cannot be revived.

This rapid depletion of water bodies is being caused due to various urbanization activities like drying of tanks for constructing buildings, encroachment of dried tank lands, deforestation that results in loosening of soil, dumping of garbage, sewage, and industrial wastes, and growing of weeds that makes the water tanks useless.

Thus, Narain comments: “If you ask the obvious question of how construction was permitted on the wetland, you will get a not-so-obvious response: Wetlands are rarely recorded under municipal land laws, so nobody knows about them. Planners see only land, not water and greedy builders take over.”

Hence, unless and until the state governments, city corporations, planners are not sensitized towards the environmental aspects of the issue; greedy builders are not restrained, and environmental rules and regulations are not strictly implemented, Indian cities and other urban centers will continue to be exposed to severe natural calamities.