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Why is December decimating Tamil Nadu?

New Delhi, December 04 (G’nY News Service):  This December Tamil Nadu has experienced its worst rainfall in a 100 years. We have also seen the region suffer the December 2004 tsunami, still fresh in our memories, a phenomenon that occurred over 100 years ago – the last one in recorded history being in 1883, where a 2 m tsunami was reported in Chennai.

Rainfall Variability in India

In the present context, total rainfall in Tamil Nadu in November this year was 1218.6 mm, which is three times the November normal of 407.4 mm. For the week ending on December 2, the Chennai regional Meteorological Centre, IMD, records 347.3 mm of rainfall. The manifestations may be comprehended when compared with 53.4 mm, the normal rainfall for this period, thus marking a 550 per cent excess rainfall during the period. Although the skies relented on Thursday morning, but, the ordeal is far from over. As per IMD’s forecast for region in the next 24 hours, ‘the sky condition would be generally cloudy; one or two spells of rain or thundershowers would occur in some areas, heavy at times’.

The event raises three pertinent questions. Is this extreme rainfall event a manifestation of climate change, two, was it preventable, and three, should we ever stop playing politics even in the grimmest situation.

The Science Behind the Tamil Nadu Floods

Our paltry lot of Indian scientists, dedicating their lives to forecasting, is unfortunately ill equipped in statesmanship. Even if they were to shout about increasing episodes of extreme weather events in India from rooftops, our city planners would continue to sleep without twitching a brow. So, drainage systems would continue to be dysfunctional, creeks and culverts blocked, garbage dumped at every convenient corner, inadequate or non-existent desilting undertaken, to name just a few. In the case of Chennai, encroachments on Cooum River, Adyar River and Buckingham Canal, which serve as the main storm water drain for the city, have added to the woe, notwithstanding the intra-departmental buck passing that raised the ire of the Madras High Court in September this year.

Dr Ajit Tyagi, former DG, IMD, speaking with G’nY correspondent said, “Chennai has been facing floods in recent past too, in 2005, 2010 and 2013 not with such severity perhaps, but the situation is not new to the city.” He opines that, “Indian scientists have already established that extreme weather events have shown an increase and is likely to turn more severe”.

But, every situation opens an opportunity for one-upmanship. As the city’s tears mingle with the rain, political leaders continue to haggle. The Indian PM, Narendra Modi announced a near Rs 2000 crore as relief, first 940, and following it up with 1000, in the hope that the State’s people would appreciate his heartfelt effort in ridding the affected masses of their sorrow. On the other hand, J. Jayalalitha, the Chief Minister of the State, pointed out that it was only a pittance in comparison to the Rs 5000 crore that is required, nulling all brownie points that he may have earned.

India’s knee jerk reactions warrant in depth study. An outlay of Rs 2000 crore was eked out overnight – when the damage is done and lives are lost. If half that money would have been spent on adequately mitigating the disaster preventively, the effects of this extreme rainfall event would have been minimal.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh informed the Lok Sabha that the death toll in Tamil Nadu due to floods had gone up to 269. Chennai is like an island now, two lakh people displaced and damage estimated so far is Rs. 8481 crore. Another estimate by Assochamclaimed “the financial loss due to record-breaking rainfall in Chennai and several parts of Tamilnadu may even exceed Rs 15,000 crore mark as Chennai has come to a virtual standstill and is in the grip of fear and panic.”

For tsunami events we have a 125 crore tsunami warning system established in the Bay of Bengal, soon after 2004. But if the similar, or even smaller amounts were spent on deploying scientists to monitor storm water drain routes on real-time dynamic networks, extreme rainfall events would have little effect on the cityscape. The smart city networks should, in fact, factor in such costs to save the central exchequer humongous rehabilitation costs of such calamities.

Interestingly, the Chennai situation was also discussed at Paris Climate summit ‘COP 21’ with concern. Scientists are considering whether the frequency of the extreme weather events has increased in countries like India in the last 100 years. Scientists are debating whether this is a manifestation of climate change situation, or, whether it is just an anomaly with the ‘warming El Nino bringing more winter rainfall after a dry summer’.

It is perhaps time for our policy makers and planners to realize that climate anomalies are here to stay, and cannot be trifled with. As Dr Tyagi puts it, “hydrology of most of India’s cities was never planned, including Chennai to counter heavy rainfall”. We need to have a vision, which would keep us a step ahead, plan and most importantly implement it with conviction. We did not learn from Kashmir, probably we may learn from Tamilnadu.

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