Cities & Architecture

As Chennai Flooded, Officials Fiddled

Rescue workers transport evacuees in a rubber boat through floodwaters following heavy rains in Chennai on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Rescue workers transport evacuees in a rubber boat through floodwaters following heavy rains in Chennai on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Chennai: Caught on the back foot by sustained criticism of its poor handling of the recent floods in the state , the Tamil Nadu government has ramped up its damage control exercise over the past two days. On December 13, the chief secretary issued a detailed 13-page statement detailing the events around the release of water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir, and why it was wrong of the media to accuse the government of mismanaging the situation.

This is in the background of the recent flooding of the city of Chennai on December 2 after torrential rains forced the release of 29,000 cusecs of water from the Chembarambakkam reservoir, the city’s main water storage tank, into the Adyar river. Water rose up to 12 feet in some areas as the river flowed in spate. Close to 100 people died in the city alone due to the rains and flooding and most residents suffered enormous damage to property, the quantity of which is yet to be ascertained.

The Wire had earlier reported on the mismanagement of the reservoir, the lack of information made available to the public as well as the subsequent lack of coordination amongst rescue forces which made a bad situation unmanageable.

The chief secretary’s statement begs more questions. Take for instance this:

“The Assistant Engineer in charge of Chembarambakkam Tank, who is the Controlling Officer of the Reservoir is the competent authority under the Rules for Flood Regulation to regulate flood discharge,” says the statement. “As heavy rain was forecast, Supervisory Officers including the Chief Engineer, Chennai Region of Water Resources Organisation, Public Works Department were also present at Chembarambakkam Tank and personally monitoring the situation.

“The Engineers in charge of the Tank closely monitored the inflows and the rainfall in the upstream catchment area and accordingly regulated the discharge from the Tank for the purpose of ensuring the safety of the Tank. No specific instructions or orders are required nor were they sought from the Principal Secretary, Public Works Department or the Chief Secretary regarding surplus releases from the Chembarambakkam Tank in the period leading up to December 1, 2015… Hence, the allegation that they were waiting for instructions from the Principal Secretary, Public Works Department and the Chief Secretary and the imputation that the officers were awaiting the clearance from the Hon’ble Chief Minister are malicious and are canards not supported by the water release data of the reservoir.”

Contrary to the impression created by this claim, The Wire has reliably learnt that except for the chief engineer and some junior officials of the Public Works Department, all other senior engineers were in fact at the secretariat, waiting, along with the PWD secretary outside the chief secretary’s office. It is unclear as to what all of these officials and the secretary were doing there. The engineer-in-chief, a senior official, was in fact present in Tuticorin at the time, 600 km away from the state capital. Decisions on water release were put off until too late. These senior engineers would have ideally formed the crucial control room of the PWD, monitoring water flow and rainfall data real time.

“The control room of the PWD was non-functional,” said the highly placed source who did not wish to be named. “Nobody estimated or anticipated the correct flow in the river consequent to the downpour. That proved costly,” he said.

Unwitting admission

The chief secretary unwittingly points to how close to a bigger disaster Chennai and its surrounds came to at this point. “The maximum water level in the tank at 9 pm on 1.12.2015 was only 23.40 ft. and had not reached the FTL [full tank level] of 24 ft,” says the statement. By his own admission in the statement, it is mandatory to ensure that water in the reservoir is kept at a level of 2 feet below FTL. Water was clearly allowed to go up to almost the entire 24 feet full tank level and released once the level touched 23.4 feet, a mere 0.6 feet from overflow.

Another question that arises is why the government did not inform the people about the severity of the situation when they knew that 90% of tanks emptying into the Adyar river were already full before the heavy rains began on December 01?

According to the chief secretary’s own statement, 166 tanks empty into the Adyar river and almost all of these were full. “Further, due to heavy rains, 4 tanks namely, Nandhivaram, Urappakkam, Mannivakkam and Adanur Tanks breached on reaching their maximum water level,” says the statement. “This, in turn, resulted in heavy inflow into the Adyar River. Chennai city also received a rainfall of more than 30 cm on 1.12.2015. The flow in Adyar River reached its full capacity due to the surplus from Chembarambakkam Tank, the inflow from the catchment areas of Adyar within Chennai city and the surplus received from the other tanks,” it says.

No warning was issued about the breaching of four tanks even on December 1. Corporation officials claim that they were only informed about 29,000 cusecs of water being released from Chembarambakkam at around 8pm on December 1. No word was passed about the additional inflow of water from all the 166 tanks emptying into the Adyar river or the additional water due to the rains.

“It is PWD’s duty to warn of the entire flow in the river which was not done,” the official who briefed The Wire said. “Until the evening of December 1, all of us were talking about the release of 29,000 cusecs of water. But the actual water that flowed into the Adyar was 1 lakh cusecs thanks to the tank breaches and the additional flow in the river. There was laxity by the PWD. The control room has not kept any data,” he said.

Question of timing

Another question that arises is about why the first release of water from Chembarambakkam was done only by around 10 am on the morning of Dec 1. “Based on the field situation, the engineers on the spot increased the outflow to 10,000 cusecs at 10  am, 12,000 cusecs at 12 noon and to 20,960 cusecs from 2 pm in the afternoon,” explains the chief secretary’s statement. “This outflow was further increased to 25,000 cusecs at 5 pm and to 29,000 cusecs at 6 pm based on the inflows and maintained at that level till 3 pm next day and reduced gradually.”

It is mystifying as to why officials in charge of water management of the reservoir waited until 10 am on the morning of Dec 1 to release the first outflow, especially since it had rained heavily all through the night of November 30. “Which manual says it should not be released keeping in mind the rain in catchment and anticipated run-off?,” asked the senior official.

“On November 17, when water was at a level of 22.3 feet in the reservoir, 18,000 cusecs of water was released,” pointed out Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi in a statement. “On November 30, the water level was at 22.05 feet but only 800 cusecs of water was released. Is this not wrong?” he asked.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, facing flak for mismanagement of the reservoir and the subsequent flood, on Tuesday decided to release an audio message via messaging app WhatsApp, in a belated effort at damage control.

“Vanakkam. This is your dear sister Jayalalithaa speaking. I am very distressed at the thought of the troubles you all are facing as a result of unprecedented rains in the past 100 years. Do not worry. This is your government. You have given me the strength to battle any situation and win. I am always for you and I will always be with you. Very soon I will rescue you from this sorrow and will ensure you attain growth and resilience. This is a promise.

“I have initiated rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts on a war footing. Ministers, government officials, police, the three Forces, State and National Disaster Rescue Forces and NGOs worked shoulder to shoulder with you all. I will bear all of the burdens that befall you. I do not have a separate life of my own. I do not have relatives. I do not have absolutely no self interest. You are everything to me. My home and my heart is Tamil Nadu.

“I have dedicated my lifetime to serving you all simply due to you all calling me ‘Amma’ – I have even forgotten the name my parents have given me. I will reiterate that this government is one that has successfully won against natural disasters. Whatever troubles come, trust that this mother’s hands will always wipe them away. Thank you.”

While DMK heir apparent MK Stalin was quick to lambast this message as Jayalalithaa shedding “crocodile tears”, the demand for a commission of enquiry into the issue of water release is growing.