Where are Chennai’s lifelines?

Towering disasters Rapid urban expansion along with flouting of existing urban development policies aggravated the floods
Towering disasters Rapid urban expansion along with flouting of existing urban development policies aggravated the floods

According to an analysis by the World Resource Institute (WRI), urban floods could cost India billions of dollars and affect a significant portion of the population. Statistics reveal that India’s metropolises are prone to urban flooding and can claim upto 4.8 million victims. These figures paint a grim picture of the future of Indian metropolitan cities. An image, that is perhaps synonymous with the climate disaster science fiction film, The day after tomorrow.

When disaster strikes right at home and puts our daily lives on a standstill, the cataclysmic effects of urban development blur our vision of cities. The Chennai floods, according to the Indian Meteorological Department, were a consequence of an exceptionally strong El Niño. While it was certainly a situation that brought together all residents of Chennai, it’s important to take a step back and look at perhaps the most important factors that led to this devastation. It is time that municipal administrators and town planners take a critical look and assess factors that facilitated a devastation of such magnitude.


As a resident of Chennai, I was shocked when I first read historian S Muthiah’s article The Battle of the Adyar in the Madras Miscellany section of The Hindu (29th Nov, 2012). Muthiah recalls a Chennai (a.k.a. Madras) which about a 100 years ago had around 300 water bodies within its municipal limits. Many among these, were built as catchment tanks to hold the heavy downpour of rains in the region, eventually diverting run off to the Cooum river, the Adyar river and the Buckingham canal. Fast forward to today, we see a handful of these water bodies and the rivers existing only as sewage canals. Many of these are non-existent and the remaining ones are slowly disappearing through encroachments and landfilling for the high-end real-estate market. Loyola College, Kilpauk General Hospital and the Vyasapadi Industrial Estate, among the present landmarks which were built on the lifelines of the city, are the most affected. To any Chennaiite, flooding to the point of creating make-shift water bodies between buildings is not a surprising image.

Anish Cherian | Architect and Urban Planner
Anish Cherian | Architect and Urban Planner

In their glorious period, both rivers — Cooum and Adyar — were an integral part of the socio-economic and cultural life of the city. They acted as a navigation system, not to mention the fact that they also functioned as natural rainwater drains, which could carry excess water to remaining non-existent catchment areas. During the rule of the East India Company, many of the British officials had chosen the river banks for building their palatial houses because of its beauty. But today, it remains as a stench filled water network that links the city. No resident or visitor in Chennai is new to the stench of the Cooum river which, as far as one can remember, has been more of a sewer system than a river. Encroachment on these water bodies for maximising real estate value stripped the city of its lifeline. Thus, according to the open source map prepared by Mapbox, low-lying areas of Mambalam, Adyar, Kodambakkam, Kotturpuram and Tambaram are the most affected by the floods. These areas lack a good storm water drain.

Predominantly, absence of such water networks has proven to be consequential to the recent floods that put a halt to normal life in Chennai. Rapid urbanisation, the tremendous growth in urban density and faulty drainage systems have also not been helpful in controlling this disaster. Furthermore, Chennai’s rapid expansion without any control has led to urban explosion. The recent development being the construction of the new airport on the Adyar river basin, disregarding natural terrain.


The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment strengthened municipal governments to enact urban policies, foster urban development and storm water system. It gave Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) unconditional authority in designing urban areas and infrastructure for the unforeseen future. But nationally, urban authorities and municipal corporations have fallen short of this responsibility since private market forces have been involved in uncontrolled land development projects. Some analysts have also attributed this to the lack of sufficient funding mechanism and as an effect of unregulated real-estate markets. This can be seen in most cases across urban areas and the effects of this unplanned growth have been seen in the floods of Mumbai and Kolkata.

It is not that these encroachments were unanticipated by our authorities. In fact, measures taken by local bodies aided in constituting the Development Control Regulations/Rules (DCR), which dictate the development pattern of the city. DCR helps in the judicious use of available land and it ensures that landuse pattern is based on the geo-spatial analysis of the city.

These guidelines state: “No piece of land shall be used as a site for the construction of a building, (i) if the site is near a water body/course and the proposed development is likely to contaminate the said water body/course”. The violation of this rule is rampant across the city and can be seen in the unauthorised construction by profit hungry developers. So, the recent floods should become a warning to the administration and planners alike on the ramifications of violation of development control rules, a necessary prerequisite for a well-planned city. Such unethical and illegal practices can hit the economic condition of the city and have serious public health implications.

The crucial role of ULBs in the management of urban flooding is reiterated by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Authorities need to ensure that a city is capable of developing a drainage basin that can allow water to flow back to the river during peak runoffs and ensure that sufficient permeable surfaces are available for the percolation of water into the ground. Since, rapid urbanisation has resulted in increased impermeable surfaces in the form of built-up areas, roads and pavements, it is necessary that there are sufficient open and green spaces throughout the city.

For now, the rains have subsided and the helping hands provided by its residents, well-wishers and the armed forces have been instrumental in providing safety to the many victims. Perhaps this image of the city says more about Chennai than the stench laden river (Cooum) running across the heart of the city.

However, continuing on this path of unplanned and unregulated construction must be discouraged. Not only will it provide us no chance to recuperate, it will also lead to bigger disasters in future. Keeping this in mind, the administration must prepare the city for such calamities. It should ensure the availability of sufficient rainwater catchments and promote green corridors and spaces to allow percolation of water. Most importantly, it should prepare disaster relief measures well ahead of time instead of relying on measures in hindsight.