Climate resilience in Chennai’s neighbourhoods depends not only on their land use and hydrology, but also on the social and economic abilities of residents, and their capacity to improvise systems to overcome a crisis
When Chennai flooded in end-2015, newly developed areas such as Velachery flooded more than older parts of the city such as Mylapore. That was natural, since Velachery is among the localities that developed after the late 1990s in the southern axis radiating out of the city. It was built over a complex of low-lying wetlands, and water flowed and accumulated there.
Since the water stayed in these areas for a long time, the physical impact of the flood was higher in these areas. Water drained out of Mylapore faster. Despite that, in terms of social and economic dimensions of the recovery, Velachery was not far behind Mylapore. A team of researchers from the School of Earth and Atmospheric Science, Madras University, and ETH Zurich in Switzerland came to this conclusion after surveying residents of Mylapore and Velachery in recent months.
Extreme rain events (EREs) affect different parts of the city differently based on land use patterns and hydrology. However, how the localities respond and recover depends on their social and economic abilities and how they improvise systems to get on top of the crisis. Together, these constitute the climate resilience of different localities. With EREs likely to become more frequent in future, and understanding on how localities coped in the past will help design interventions for the future. See: Extreme rainfall leaves cities floundering, Encroached wetlands, cut trees increase climate risks in Chennai
In the process of getting back to their feet, the residents of Velachery, predominantly working at information technology companies, whose offices dot the Old Mahabailuparam Road and the radial roads emanating from it, were found to be quicker. Their counterparts in Mylapore, which is one of the oldest parts of Chennai, with its maze of small streets surrounding centuries-old temples, were slower in their recovery response. If there was a delay in recovery in Velachery, it was because of the higher intensity impact that the locality had suffered.
How neighbourhoods responded
“After the 2015 flood, we wanted to check how two different parts of the city responded to situation,” said R.R. Krishnamurthy, head, Department of Applied Geology, University of Madras. Krishnamurthy’s team collaborated with researchers from ETH Zurich to study the comparative resilience of the two localities.
“Though Velachery was hit worse than Mylapore, the people improvised, created teams and institutions, and worked better at recovery compared to the people of the established locality of Mylapore,” Krishnamurthy told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “This included innovative improvisation such as adding height to their existing buildings by cutting and adding height to its walls.” In an already sunken Velachery, repeated road repairs had let to the roads increasing in height, and thereby trapping water within households. See: Lifting houses to escape Chennai floods
According to Jonas Joerin of the Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETH Zurich, the study’s objective was to look at the relative response through three different dimensions — physical, social and economic.
“Our key finding is that for physical items such as electricity, roads, connectivity, water supply, etc., Velachery took more time for recovery,” Joerin told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “This is not surprising since the damage was high and obviously it will take more time to recover. But when we looked at the social and economic assets such as education, food, nutrition, income generation or household assets, we see a much less time gap between the two constituencies. So, whether you lived in Mylapore or Velachery, you needed the same time to recover from the socio-economic aspects.”
In Velachery, people were more eager to be part of the recovery process. They became active members of the teams involved with the recovery process, and offered more help to the neighbours. “We realised that higher the flood impact higher was the people’s involvement in recovery,” Joerin said.
Questions on satisfaction with the recovery process showed that even though it took longer for Velachery to recover because of the damage, it was not as if the people were less satisfied. “Apparently the flood intensity did not have a significant impact on people’s satisfaction levels,” Joerin commented.
The study also confirmed what was known anecdotally since the flood — the elected representatives were not very effective interacting with the people during the floods. Ironically, this did not affect the voting pattern in the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, where the ruling party retained their constituencies in some of the badly affected areas of the city.
“This study will help us be better prepared for events such as the 2015 flood,” R. Nataraj, Member of Legislative Assembly from Mylapore, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “For this we have to involve everybody including the public and voluntary organisations. People should be prepared but not scared of rains.”
Increased vulnerability in Chennai
Being a flat city that has been losing its wetlands to construction and with development along the floodplains constricting the flow of the rivers, Chennai has been prone to waterlogging and floods. Between November 8 and December 4, 2015, there were five EREs in Chennai, which brought severe floods and also a fear into people’s minds.
The biggest blow to Chennai’s resilience was the drowning of the city’s airport in floodwater from the Adayar River. This effectively disabled what could have been the most important point for receiving relief supplies and evacuating people from the city. The flooding of the airport happened since the secondary runway was constructed over the river, and at this point the water rose into the airport compound.
With inadequate involvement of the elected representatives during the 2015 floods, the citizens improvised and developed innovative communication channels based on social and other media. These helped to give information to those stranded and reach help and support to them. Chennai citizens later used some of these innovative communication methods during Cyclone Varadah in December 2016 and the summer drought of 2017.
Perhaps it is this emphasis on innovative communication that gave the edge to Velachery citizens in their recovery process over those in the older locality of Mylapore.