For cleaner, smarter Chennai after floods

If the city listens to itself, the Dec 2015 floods could mark the birth of a trans-formed Chennai.

In September 1994, a vibrant, fast-growing Surat saw almost 60 per cent of its population flee from pneumonic plague. Reports indicated that 56 lives were lost, over 45,000 people cancelled their travel plans to India, hotel occupancy rates went down to 20 per cent and the overall cost to the Indian economy was $600 million.

It is believed that disturbances caused by the tragic Latur earthquake a year earlier brought the wild rodent population from forests near Surat into contact with local rats, and spread infection to the city.

This was compounded by the fact that floodwaters during the 1994 monsoon invaded several low-lying slum clusters, freely mixing with the accumulation of the city’s uncollected garbage, estimated at 250 tonnes per day.

Ten years later, the city had metamorphosed into one of the cleanest cities of the country.  An report in July 2005 described how two committed civil servants who served as the city’s municipal commissioners scripted this turnaround.

In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, the municipal corporation together with partner agencies worked together to rebuild the city. A long-term sustainable plan for creating a clean environment was put in place. In 18 months, the city had transformed itself.

Central to this strategy was a successfully implemented solid waste management plan comprising meticulous ward level micro plans for waste collection, with a special focus on markets, eateries and congested areas. Private contractors involved in the transportation and disposal of waste were closely monitored.

Improved sanitation facilities in slums were quickly installed; capacity building and sensitisation of health and sanitation workers was initiated. Community participation was ensured through special drives and also through punitive action for littering and dirtying the streets.

Like Chennai, Surat has also witnessed recurrent flooding over the years. The 2006 floods were particularly destructive, with water level rising to submerge 90 per cent of the city area. However, Surat quickly took notice of what went wrong, and corrected course.

In her book The Resilience Dividend, Judith Rodin writes how the city has since developed a climate change resilience strategy, an early warning system, formed the Surat Climate Change Trust and made disaster preparedness initiatives.

Learning from the 1994 plague and subsequent floods, Surat has acquired greater resilience, and is a model for other cities.

What are the lessons for Chennai? Does the aftermath of the heaviest rains and the worst deluge to have ever hit the city provide opportunities for its transformation? Despite the enormity of the impact, the administration has done well to clear up debris, preventing any serious outbreak of disease after the floods. Is that enough?

Water of rivers Cooum and Adyar, which in spate had turned a healthy shade of brown, have gone back to their black and smelly ways. The riversides still have piles of debris and dirt waiting to be washed back into the rivers after the next spell of heavy rains. Open defecation continues; littering and other means of dirtying the city continue unchecked. Can the aftermath of the floods provide civic authorities an opportunity for renewal of the city?

Opportunities for change

Here’s what can be done. Clean up the rivers all along their course. This would involve desilting and disposal of all debris and filth to landfills outside the city. Treat the sewerage flowing into these rivers at the various entry points along their length – through a combination of extensive, intensive and biological treatment methods.

Create embankments with trees and plants on them to prevent soil erosion. Holding sufficient water in these rivers, extensive aeration, sludge dispo-sal, energy recovery from waste water and promotion of activities like canoeing and boating could rejuvenate these spaces.

Develop plans for civic life around these rivers by creatively utilising space alongside them - for gardens, jogging tracks, cycling and other non-motorised transport. With the city home to leading engineering institutions like IIT, Anna University and College of Engineering, Guindy, developing and implementing a comprehensive technical plan should be possible, if there is political will.

Equally important is to put in place a sustainable plan to ensure a clean environment and to build resilience. Paving of roads, street sweeping, removal of silt and construction waste, regular and timely collection, transportation and disposal of solid waste should be critical ingredients of this plan.

Particular emphasis on setting up early warning systems and boosting disaster preparedness is mandatory. Prevention of open defecation through public campaigns and setting up of adequate sanitation facilities in slum clusters and crowded public spaces must be taken up as a priority.

Campaigns to seek community participation for segregation of solid waste at source, minimisation of use and appropriate disposal of plastic waste, prevention of littering, spitting and urinating on the streets and in public spaces should be promoted.

Enlist community bodies, self help groups, children’s clubs, industry associations and civil society organisations to support these initiatives. If the city listens to itself and learns its lessons, the December 2015 floods could prove to be a milestone in its history, marking the birth of a transformed, triumphant Chennai.

(The writer is CEO, World Vision India, NGO working for children)

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