The Flooding of Chennai: Urban India and Climate Change

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In late November and early December, flooding plagued South India and particularly Chennai. The city is home to about 8 million people and is a hub of both Indian culture and manufacturing and other economic activities. The Adyar, Cooum, and Kortalaiyar rivers reach the Bay of Bengal within or near Chennai and persistent, heavy rainfall resulted in long lasting floods. Reports on the rainfall give conflicting amount totals, but November 2015 seems to be very close to the November 1918 rainfall which is the most on record. Transportation, power, health services, and food and water supplies were limited during this recent storm and many people died. From this tragedy, Indians hope to learn lessons in city planning and flood prevention as climatologists predict more severe monsoon and El Niño storms in the future.

Despite the concerns of the Ministry of Environment, urban sprawl continues outward into the  wetlands of Delhi and Calcutta and warnings go unheeded. The same has been true for Chennai, which built over a vast wetland as the state of Tamil Nadu rushed into industrialization. At the Paris climate talks which occurred during this period of flooding, an Indian representative with the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi referred to the flooding as “a direct outcome of our ever warming planet”. Other Indian officials also released statements attributing the flooding to anthropogenic warming and climate changes. While the storms indeed may have become more severe, it is not quite as common to hear a statement from an official regretting the more localized planning and environmental decisions made as Chennai expanded. Although many of the international news and opinion pieces written on this subject discuss the relationship between severe weather and urban planning, the headlines seem to lean far more heavily in favor of using climate change as a sort of buzzword. Fortunately, Indian news places more attention and focus on urban development and local environments as these pieces of the puzzle are more easily addressed relative to global climate phenomena.

Aerial view of submerged Chennai airport taken by Indian Air Force helicopters following heavy rains in Tamil Nadu, December 2015 Photo: Indian Air Force, 2015.

Aerial view of submerged Chennai airport taken by Indian Air Force helicopters following heavy rains in Tamil Nadu, December 2015 Photo: Indian Air Force, 2015.