Chennai May Just Be Masterminding its Next Flooding Disaster

Hidden away in two tables in an urban masterplan are entries that hint at the impending flooding woes of North Chennai.

Every time Chennai gets flooded, this river or that tank is blamed for behaving badly. The Adyar and Cooum rivers, and the Poondi and Chembarambakkam tanks, have silently borne the brunt of the blame apportioned for floods over the last century. The city’s northernmost river Kosasthalaiyar has largely escaped the accusing glare of indignant city administrators. Not for long, though. In a rare display of cooperative federalism, city, state and central governments are now actively working to change that. In the coming years, if things go per Chennai’s second ‘masterplan’, Kosasthalaiyar will be able to grab its share of disaster time headlines.

In 2006, when Chennai’s draft 20-year masterplan was being prepared, the horrendous flooding of the earlier year was still fresh in public memory. For a document authored by a crony regulator like the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, the masterplan’s chapter on macrodrainage is surprisingly candid and not too far off the mark:

The last century records have shown that there were several catastrophic flooding in Chennai in 1943, 1978, 1985, 2002 and 2005 … These events of catastrophic flooding were found to be attributable to the failure of major rivers and other drainage systems.

Again, it was the rivers that failed, not the planners.

The plan document’s recommendations for averting flooding are laudable, too. There is talk of converting the “constraints and disposal of floodwaters into an opportunity … for augmenting urban water supply through creation of additional storage capacity,”; “Developing a network of open spaces to provide green environment … to be used as flood moderators”; and “preventing encroachments” and identifying “areas where development other than those appropriate to use them as open spaces have to be prohibited or severely restricted.”

Urban masterplans are meant to be about wise land-use planning. The plan is intended to clear the way for a city’s growth without compromising its environmental resilience. Land-use conversions, particularly of farm lands, forests and wetlands to built forms would require to be disclosed, discussed and justified in the plan document. Such proposals would need to be subject to public consultation at a local level. Chapter 14 of the masterplan is titled ‘Landuse Planning and Strategy’. Nowhere in this chapter is there any mention of converting wetlands to other uses. Nor does the document contain any maps of adequate scale to inform local stakeholders – riverside property owners or fisherfolk – of the nature and magnitude of conversion and its implications.

The devil, in this case, is not in the detail. Rather, tucked away in two tables listing existing land use in 2006 and proposed land use in 2026 are entries that hint at the impending flooding woes of North Chennai.

From 6,563 hectares in 2006, the industrial area in the Chennai Metropolitan Area is set to increase to 10,690.41 hectares by 2026, even as agricultural area decreases from 12,470 hectares to 7,295.81 hectares, and lands under the ‘Others’ category (vacant, forest, hills, low-lying and waterbodies) shrinks from 56,507 hectares to 28,147 hectares (a drop of 49.8%). Rainfall on agricultural, forested and open lands results in less runoff than from constructed areas. So land-use is a crucial factor that can exacerbate or mitigate flooding risks.

The hydrological ramifications of the re-zoning become evident when one zeroes in on the Ennore creek area. Of the 3,416.08 hectares allocated to “Special and Hazardous Industries” in the CMA outside Chennai, a little less than 1,000 hectares (2,341 acres) falls just within the three riverside villages of Athipattu, Vallur and Ennore, per land area estimates arrived at using GIS tools.

The Ennore creek is a sprawling waterscape that is slowly being encroached upon by thermal power plants and a port. Credit: Coastal Resource Centre, Chennai. 2015

The Ennore creek is a sprawling waterscape that is slowly being encroached upon by thermal power plants and a port. Credit: Coastal Resource Centre, Chennai. 2015

Overlaying the masterplan on the Survey of India toposheet and separately over the state Coastal Zone Management Plan reveals the full extent of the proposed folly. Nearly 1,500 acres of salt pans, 212 acres of fish farms and 317 acres of areas identified either as CRZ IV (tidal waterbody) or CRZ I (intertidal area) fall within the area marked as S&H Industries. Wetlands constitute nearly 90% of the area reserved for S&H Industries zone in this region.

The chronology of developments in the region indicates that the decision to finish off Chennai’s coastal wetlands was made well before the masterplanning process began. The Kamarajar Port, Ltd. (KPL, formerly Ennore Port), which was commissioned on February 1, 2001 by then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was premised on the availability of space in the hinterland. KPL’s website proudly announces that it “was endowed with large chunks of land (about 2,000 acres).” That claim about land is a bit of a stretch.

There is no land in the immediate hinterland. Between the port and the agricultural area further west is the vast waterscape of Ennore Creek. Unlike the Adyar and Cooum rivers with their straightforward entry into the sea, the Kosasthalaiyar’s entry into the Bay of Bengal is negotiated through the Ennore creek – a complex network of rivulets and distributaries, interspersed with mangrove-fringed salt pans. In addition to Kosasthalaiyar’s waters, the Ennore creek also carries the south-flowing waters from the massive brackishwater Pulicat Lake, which has most of its waterspread and catchment in Andhra Pradesh.

Final CMDA map, 2016. Credit: Coastal Resource Centre, Chennai

Final CMDA map, 2016. Credit: Coastal Resource Centre, Chennai

The newly laid road leading to KPL’s main gate is built on a narrow spit of land with the creek on one side and the Buckingham Canal on the other. The creek has a perennial channel called the Cochrane’s Canal and is bound by a broad intertidal zone with mangroves and salt marshes, interspersed with fish farms and salt pans. Over the last few years, signboards thrusting out of a clump of stunted mangroves here, or a squelchy mud flat there, declare, “This land belongs to Kamarajar Port.” During high tide and the monsoons, the signboard is barely above the waterline.

Even more land is sought to be freed up by applying to the river the maxim that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. A proposal for a “river straightening project” by the Public Works Department is pending Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance.

A lot of damage has already been wreaked. A large portion of what used to be salt pans and mangroves has now been raised by dumping spoils from harbour-dredging to construct an iron-ore and coal-stacking yard. A road-cum-coal conveyor from the harbour to the stack-yard has all but dammed the river, sparing it a meagre opening. Work that was afoot to convert more water to land was stopped only after local fisherfolk physically blocked it and made a complaint to the Tamil Nadu Coastal Zone Management Authority. In a rare display of action, the authority also directed KPL to stop dumping in the wetland.

KPL is not the only threat to these wetlands. According to local fisherfolk, hydrologically disastrous interventions by North Chennai Thermal Power Station (NCTPS) and the NTPC Tamil Nadu Energy Company Limited (NTECL) power plant in Vallur too played a significant role in exacerbating flooding in the region. In March 2016, fisherfolk from six villages that depend on the Ennore creek invited a three-member panel headed by Justice (Retd.) D. Hariparanthaman to visit the creek and hear their grievances.

The panel’s report notes that: “The dumping of flyash by NCTPS and NTECL Vallur power plants, dumping of dredged mud by Kamaraj Port, the failure to remove debris between the columns of various bridges by various agencies, has vastly compromised the ability of the river to carry floodwaters. Further, the flyash dykes of NCTPS and NTECL also obstruct eastward flow of water, including from distributaries of the Kosasthalaiyar leading to flooding in areas around these structures. The irresponsible actions of these agencies can be squarely blamed for causing floods in Athipattu, Ernavur and Ennore [in 2015].”

Toxic coal ash from North Chennai Thermal Power Station has destroyed acres of biologically productive wetlands. Credit: Coastal Resource Centre, Chennai, 2015

Toxic coal ash from North Chennai Thermal Power Station has destroyed acres of biologically productive wetlands. Credit: Coastal Resource Centre, Chennai, 2015

Additionally, the panel noted how areas “covered by former salt pan lands, mangroves and waterbodies and marked as ecologically sensitive in the coastal zone management plan have been earmarked for ‘Hazardous and Special Industries’ in 2nd Chennai Master Plan.” The panel has now written to the CMDA Monitoring Committee urging it “to reverse the damage already done, and prevent any further damage by re-zoning the area in line with the mandates of environmentally sustainable development.”

A river is a lot more than a line of flowing water. The flood plains, the meanders, the tidal flats, salt marshes and creeks and associated vegetation along the estuarine stretches are integral to the health of the river. And Kosasthalaiyar still retains some characteristics of a river. Whether it will remain a river, and whether it will help or hurt the next time it rains heavily, will depend on whether it is the fisherfolk’s will or the ‘Make in India’ agenda that prevails. If KPL’s dreams of expansion are realised, North Chennai will have to prepare itself for a watery nightmare into perpetuity.

Maps by Pooja Kumar and K. Saravanan.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.