Chennai floods and the real estate conundrum: Need for sustainable solutions

A major cause of repeated inundation during monsoons in Chennai is the encroachment of water bodies by private and government entities.

It’s summer, and did we forget about the yearly floods again? Last December’s disastrous tryst with monsoons and flooding is not new to the city but often washed away with the city’s other priorities.

Throughout its history, Chennai has faced a range of disasters, both related to climate and other factors. Over time, the incidence of such calamities, particularly floods and droughts, has escalated, significantly impacting the city and its people, economy, and infrastructure.

What the city needs is strategic urban planning, efficient water management and collaborative governance to mitigate flooding. Chennai must also be prepared to effectively respond to disasters as they occur. It is crucial to prioritise the needs of vulnerable communities and small enterprises, which are often the hardest hit by such events.

The wrath of floods

Cyclone Michaung, which hit Chennai in December 2023 is yet another reminder of the systemic failure of the city’s resource management. Beyond health camps organised in the aftermath of floods and the provision of relief resources to citizens, there remains ambiguity regarding the government’s long-term strategies for effective disaster management.

Read more: Marooned and abandoned: Study reveals displaced families were put in the path of floods

What do civic authorities mean when they say they are focussed on ‘preparedness’? How disaster-prepared must the metropolitan be and on what scale? In its quest for resilience, Chennai often neglects to address the root causes of the disaster.

One of the main reasons for flooding is the encroachment of wetlands. Real estate companies are being allowed to violate regulations and encroach upon lakes and marshlands, while the authorities are hypocritical when they evacuate marginalised communities from near these water bodies. Rather than merely preparing Chennai for recurring disasters, let’s focus on understanding why these crises intensify annually and where our year-round practices fall short.

The pervading presence of land mafia

In December last year, the Datajam organised by in collaboration with the Information and Resource Centre for Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) and the Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG), analysed available data, including crowd-sourced and government data on floods, stormwater drains and elevation, and came out with critical information.

The goal of this exercise was to pinpoint systemic issues and propose potential remedies. The participants highlighted Chennai’s rapid urbanisation over the past two decades. They observed that as more buildings emerge, they become increasingly susceptible to flooding, particularly those situated near existing lakes and wetlands.

One of the teams also emphasised the encroachment on water bodies due to plotted development, citing instances of blocked transit canals, silted canals and government-led encroachments. These include the ELCOT and NIOT projects in Sholinganallur, which have encroached on significant portions of the Pallikaranai Marshland.

The Datajam participants underscored the need to regulate land usage and examine revenue records transparently to prevent more such encroachments. They suggested demarcating of existing water bodies, establishing flood zones, and halting the resettlement of flood-prone individuals into similar areas.

flood map
Map showing buildings affected by flooding during Cyclone Michaung. Map courtesy: Open City

A flood management audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) highlighted the escalating numbers of elite wetland encroachments since the 2015 floods and revealed the discriminatory nature of eviction and resettlement practices. This increased inundation and adversely affected living conditions of vulnerable communities, the report said.

The data revealed a worrying trend, where marginalised communities are forcibly relocated to inadequate housing within wetlands. Meanwhile, upscale apartment complexes and buildings housing tech companies, remain largely untouched. The report recommended the removal of real estate developments.

Instances from past experiences

There aren’t clear zones marked for floods in the State Master Plan’s Development Regulations and the Tamil Nadu District Municipalities Building Rules (1972). However, rule 7 of the building rules states that if a construction site is within 15 metres of a water body, necessary measures must be taken to protect it as directed by the executive authority.

In June 2012, a committee led by the Vice-Chairman of CMDA suggested a buffer zone of 15 metres between the river and any proposed building, with plans to issue an office order to enforce this rule.

Read more: Resilience during adversity: How RWAs in Tambaram helped combat floods 

Despite the guidelines, CMDA continued to grant planning permissions for buildings within the 15-metre buffer zone, without implementing any measures to prevent harm to these water bodies.

The following table published in the audit report, shows numerous instances where buildings approved by CMDA were located within 15 metres of waterways. During the floods of 2015, these buildings got submerged

Why are marginalised settlements called ‘encroachments’, while upscale real estate developments are labelled as ‘lake-view apartments’? A report by the IRCDUC says “Placing people in the paths of floods and ecologically sensitive areas in the guise of restoring waterways has only multiplied the vulnerabilities of communities that were already struggling because of the resettlements.”

To prepare? Or to partially prevent?

There is a need to examine the challenges of flood management, identifying the true stakeholders and those burdened by its costs.

Some points to ponder:

  • Policy frameworks solely geared towards crisis management have consistently proven ineffective and short-lived. Long term planning is necessary.
  • Marginalised communities, MSMEs, and other vulnerable groups bear the brunt of disasters. Yet the government repeats the same errors post-crisis, and aggravates the situation.
  • There must be a clear mandate to regulate real estate ventures in eco-sensitive areas, while proper measures are taken to rehabilitate marginalised communities, instead of housing within wetlands.
  • Rather than solely focusing on post-disaster management plans, it is equally, if not more, crucial to identify the ongoing shortcomings in land use dynamics and their impact on the environment.

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