Unnatural Disaster: After the Chennai Floods

Unnatural Disaster: After the Chennai Floods

Last December’s floods in Chennai illustrated the devastating consequences of a development model that puts profits before people. But they also hinted at what a democratic response to climate disaster might look like.

Chennai residents, December 2, 2015 (Destination8infinity / Wikimedia Commons)

On March 3, 2016, the world quietly lost a little more ground to climate change: for a few hours, average global temperatures were 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels for this time of year. Fluctuations are common, of course, and 2016’s record-breaking temperatures and extreme weather events can be partly attributed to El Niño, whose fingers have been present in everything from California winter rain to the current, devastating Ethiopian drought. But this year, El Niño comes to us layered on top of an already warming world. In December, 195 countries agreed to work towards keeping global temperature rise between 1.5 and 2°C above pre-industrial levels, even as prominent climate scientists insisted that a full 2°C increase courts disaster. This initial spike into that danger zone is unprecedented in human history, and a reminder that climate change and its effects have already arrived. Besides needing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as fast as possible, the world also has damage control on its hands.

How do we make populations resilient in the face of natural disaster, and how can we best pick up the pieces after disaster strikes? The challenges already facing global civilization—from rising sea levels to drought, fire, and flood, exacerbating human conflict in their wake—threaten to get much worse as temperatures rise, testing our ability to adapt to a changing planet.

In December, just as the UN climate change summit, COP21, opened in Paris, the South Indian coastal metropolis of Chennai was inundated by floodwaters following a month of unprecedented rainfall. Although individual storms are difficult to attribute to climate change, and again El Niño was an interacting factor, cyclones such as that which caused exceptional rainfall along the Chennai coast in November are likely to increase in intensity with climate change. Thus, for Indians especially, Chennai helped bring home the stakes of the negotiations in Paris.

In the coastal city itself, however, activists were too preoccupied to hold their breath for a breakthrough climate deal. Even as Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner spoke out at COP21 on behalf of her own drowning homeland, social media was coming together in Chennai, coordinating relief efforts for families stranded by rising waters and in need of immediate help. Despite such efforts, hundreds were killed in the first week of December, floodwaters invading hospitals and burial grounds alike. Into the second week of December, Chennai’s roads were still filled with sewage-laced waters, even as the Indian delegation at COP21 lobbied for a greater “emissions space” in order to continue developing at the current pace.

Official numbers do little to describe the full extent of the damage from the floods. The Tamil Nadu state government put disaster relief estimates at 25,900 crore rupees (roughly $3.9 billion) for Chennai and surrounding regions. That bare amount conceals the fissuring out of social strata that accompanied the disaster: in flood-stricken rural areas near Chennai, the brunt of the damages have been borne by the lower castes, while relief efforts have disproportionately benefited upper castes. Over a million were estimated displaced from their homes by the rains across the state of Tamil Nadu, and at least 470, by official counts, were killed. But the latter number is improbably low, points out Satyarupa Shekhar, who works with the Citizen consumer and civic Action Group (CAG). A comprehensive death census never happened, she says. Such an endeavor would be difficult in Chennai, in part because the people who live and work in the city’s informal sector—arguably the people who were worst affected by the floods—are also largely off the state’s radar. Shekhar has worked with a group called Transparent Chennai, whose “maptivists” documented the lack of public amenities in Chennai’s large unrecognized slums five years ago. In the worst of the floods at the beginning of December, many of those riverside slum dwellings were simply swept away.

Natural and human disasters reduce society to a skeletal framework for a brief moment of time, showing us who we are underneath—how we react to crises, and where the weak points are. These moments are worth paying attention to, because the pressure on those weak points stand only to increase as climate change accelerates.

In Chennai, the official response to the crisis has not boded well. Much like in New Orleans ten years ago, the worst of the floods in Chennai were caused not directly by the storm but by an overflowing lake on the city’s edge. In this case, Chembarambakkam reservoir, a key water source for the city of millions, was close to full capacity by December 1 due to a month of excess rainfall. Officials chose to open the flood gates that evening, without notifying most of Chennai’s residents that the connecting Adyar River would surge. Within hours, residences in the river’s path were underwater.

But T. R. Shashwath, an independent environmentalist in Chennai, suggests that focusing on the immediate government response misses a deeper point: Chennai’s infrastructure was incapable of dealing with the rain that converged on it, breaking 100-year records. “We could not have done anything on November 30 to save the city,” he says. Shashwath has made maps, using satellite data released by the Indian Space Research Organization, to illustrate the often-neglected hydrology of the region. A broad network of rivers converge on Chennai, taking rainwater to the ocean. The Chennai region is essentially one large flood plain, he says—and the fast-growing city has not developed in a manner that respects that.

Chennai, close to sea level, has always been prone to floods. The difference this time was that unusually high levels of water had few outlets to escape from. The Adyar River, which runs to the south of the city and on into the ocean, passes through land that was largely rural even a few decades ago. But that land has transformed—lakes and marshlands drained and built upon, sometimes illegally, but often not. In the path of the floodwaters in December were an international airport, college campuses, the city’s growing tech belt, many middle- to upper-class residential areas, and low-income dwellings built, ironically, to resettle slums away from flood-prone areas. With a maze of buildings blocking its flow and only a poorly maintained drainage system to channel it, the water that entered the city had nowhere to go but up.

One might argue that a city so large should never have occupied a coastal floodplain. Shashwath points out that earlier kingdoms in the region kept their economic hubs further inland, because there “you don’t have to face the brunt of the power of cyclones.” But Chennai’s placement obeyed a different logic—that of the British East India Company, for whom the city (then Madras) was a major port beginning in the seventeenth century. European empires depended upon seagoing trade, linked as they were to faraway metropoles: their economic centers needed quick access to the ocean. Today, these former colonial trade hubs depend economically on much more than the circulation of goods; Chennai, for example, has sought to boost its growing IT sector by offering land to multinational corporations like Infosys and Wipro in its low-tax special economic zone. But as the flooding of Chennai’s IT belt in December shows, those old geographies are coming back to haunt us. The world’s heavily populated coastal areas are vulnerable to both rising waters and increasingly inclement, unpredictable weather, as the ocean serves as a heat sink for a warming atmosphere.

Along these not-quite-forgotten contours, other global stories come to light. Chennai’s rapid urban development, swallowing lakes and ignoring the path of water, is not a new or an uncommon story. Across the postcolonial world, the World Bank and other international financial institutions have encouraged and funded the kind of infrastructural development now common across India—demoting both environmental well-being and social welfare in favor of greater corporate profits. As the December floods show, development according to this logic can be lethal, especially when combined with the unpredictable risks posed by natural disasters, which are set to increase under the influence of climate change.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Chennai’s urban development included the World Bank-funded Eri Scheme, which drained lakes to create land. The word eri refers to a water reservoir that takes advantage of a natural dip in the land to store water. The presence of such artificial lakes had been a centuries-old adaptation to the fact that the Chennai region receives most of its rain over a short period of time, and is therefore vulnerable to water shortages in addition to floods. Similar systems of locally adapted water management existed across India. Here, as in other parts of the country, development meant converting a public resource into profitable but environmentally unsustainable real estate.

Public disquiet over such patterns of infrastructure development has few democratic outlets. Since the 1970s, urban planning in India has increasingly been outsourced to parastatal organizations that are not directly accountable to voters but rather to government ministers and international lending agencies, and that tend to seek efficiency and commercial viability over equity. Chennai’s water management, for example, has been under such an organization since 1978. India’s 1991 economic liberalization, fulfilling “structural adjustment” requirements for international lending agencies, further transformed the logic behind national development. In 1997, the central government cut its budget for infrastructure projects across the country, with the explicit aim of making up the difference through private-sector participation. That gradual shift from public funding to private lending has meant a similar shift from voter accountability to investor accountability. And although urban infrastructure projects typically include community consultation in their mandate, anthropologist Karen Coelho and others argue that the reality in cities such as Chennai and Bangalore has been that the public at large has little say in planning projects. When bureaucrats are faced with such a mandate in Chennai, explains Coelho, they often take shortcuts—“[they] call a couple members of the resident associations and ask them what they think,” she says. These largely middle- to upper-class associations, in turn, might be able to raise their voices against specific encroachments on local water bodies, but their advice is seldom heeded on matters of policy, Coelho found.

A corporate state that bypasses politics is not unappealing to everyone in India. Part of the current corporate- and Hindutva-friendly prime minister Narendra Modi’s popular appeal with India’s rising middle class is his image as a strong leader who is willing to buckle down and get things done. Under Modi’s government, that has meant prioritizing corporate-driven development at the expense of the environment and democracy itself.

That characterization of democracy as a well-meaning hindrance to concerted action is hardly restricted to India. Researchers worried by the slow pace of the democratic process have made similar arguments in the context of climate change. After the 2009 failure of climate talks in Copenhagen, scientist and futurist James Lovelock bemoaned the apparent destructive inertia of the human race. He suggested that democracy might need to go “on hold,” comparing climate change to an emergency state of war. Others have specifically pointed to Asia for examples of totalitarian states that might be more efficient than democracies at making rapid, unpopular systemic changes to avert environmental catastrophe.

A growing number of scholars and activists, however, argue that far from blocking progress, the democratic process is vital for combating climate change: as social scientist Nico Stehr has explained, an authoritarian bird’s-eye view cannot see complex sociopolitical issues on the ground. There is no one top-down solution that fits all in the case of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Legal scholar Jedediah Purdy has argued, as well, that democracy is a prerequisite for the global equity that we already lack and that climate change threatens to move us even farther away from. Such global inequalities are most apparent, he points out, in our heavily uneven vulnerabilities to disaster: famine and true democracy seldom coincide.

One-hundred forty years ago, Chennai (then Madras) was struck by a famine whose proximate cause was a drought caused by an unusually strong El Niño. That famine and others to follow killed tens of millions across the tropical belt in the 1870s and ‘90s, exacerbated by economic exploitation throughout the British empire. Climate historian Mike Davis has dubbed these Late Victorian Holocausts, which left the long shadow of empire on what is now the developing world.

The ravages of climate change will likewise illuminate for future generations the inequalities that exist in the world today: laying bare the lack of developmental democracy, infrastructural gaps, and who does and does not have a say in how we adapt to a changing planet.


As floodwaters rose in Chennai in December, civil society mobilized to provide relief across boundaries of class, religion, and caste. Citywide networks to coordinate rescue efforts and supply chains formed from an assortment of preexisting groups: some older organizations like ActionAid had been there through the 2004 tsunami, while T. R. Shashwath says that his Sanskrit club spontaneously coopted itself for the cause. The localized knowledge of private efforts was a boon in coordinating relief: Satyarupa Shekhar says that she was in situations where army and navy rescue operations looked to volunteers for direction, in the absence of a government presence. And the government was, all too often, absent. Shekhar was involved with a survey in late December of low-income flood-affected communities in Chennai who reported nearly across the board that their needs had been met more by the extensive private relief efforts than by the government.

According to Charu Govindan, convener of a group called the Citizens Platform that formed in December, the predominant feeling among those roused to action was anger. Many in Chennai had “the general awakening of their consciousness that they have been taken for a ride by the government or by the administrators,” she explained. Among them was Govindan herself, a homemaker and former IT professional who was compelled to act by the sight of the destruction around her as waters rose. Now the Citizens Platform is one of several groups that has turned to mapping lakes and their encroachments across the city of Chennai, working to deepen their understanding of the disaster and increase the agency of local communities in deciding the fate of their natural resources.

“We learn our geographies through disasters,” explains Nityanand Jayaraman, longtime environmental activist in Chennai who has helped organize a group called “Reclaiming Chennai, Reclaiming Democracy”—which, like the Citizens Platform, seeks to map and monitor encroachments on water bodies and coastal areas of the city. According to Jayaraman, many in the city did not even know that Chennai was home to three rivers until those rivers breached their banks in December. The path of water made residents suddenly aware of the shape of the land, and of how little the city’s development had considered that shape.

By mapping an environmentally degraded space, communities stake out their collective claim to it—a prosaic but potentially radical task. For Jayaraman, this collective consciousness is the first necessary step in bringing about the systemic change we need to counteract the depredations of climate change. Although the Paris Agreement was called a success, and its much-anticipated signing ceremony is scheduled for Earth Day this year—April 22—Jayaraman feels that the agreement does not go far enough in challenging a global system that deprioritizes the environment. “The activist and the offender are together in their addiction to an economy that is inherently unsustainable,” he says.

At the grassroots level, the good news is that worldwide, environmental activist and relief networks of the kind that Jayaraman calls for are growing—involved not just in picking up the pieces after a disaster, but also actively searching for more equitable models upon which to rebuild society. In the best cases, these networks connect new people with a longer social movement lineage, turning relief efforts into a kind of direct democracy at work. For example, when Hurricane Sandy hit the northeastern United States in October 2012, Occupy Sandy was formed within hours, connecting preexisting Occupy Wall Street networks with a wide range of volunteers eager to help their neighbors.

Tamara Shapiro, who volunteered with both Occupy movements in New York City and now coordinates a “think-make-and-do tank” called Movement Net Lab, says that the transition from protest to relief work was very smooth. Because a self-organized, coordinated network already existed, Occupy Sandy was able to respond quickly after the hurricane—not unlike citizens and activist groups in Chennai, co-opted into relief efforts, who coordinated via social media during the floods. In New York, Occupy Sandy members who had been involved in disaster relief prior to the storm could teach others what they had learned, just as many in Chennai carried the memory of the 2004 tsunami. “We had a fair number of people who had been involved [post–Hurricane Katrina relief] in New Orleans, who took the lessons from New Orleans to New York,” explains Shapiro. Others brought lessons from post-flood recovery work in Haiti, she says.

But an active, engaged civil society alone is not enough to effect systemic change, even if it is necessary in forcing that change. In confronting the slow crisis of climate disruption, people must be able to communicate and work effectively with their governments, local insights and vulnerabilities informing the state’s wider, coordinated view. In India and many other parts of the globe, including the United States, that interface between state and society is very weak. Climate scientist and activist James Hansen, famous for bringing climate change awareness to the public in the 1980s, has spoken despairingly about the state of the American democratic process, as evidenced by the mismatch between public opinion and government climate policy. In India, a growing environmental awareness has not been reflected in the government, which has shown an alarming tendency to brand as “anti-national” anyone who questions its developmental policies. It remains to be seen here, as across the rest of the world, if everyone has a vote will also be able to make their voice heard.

Anjali Vaidya is an environmental writer based out of both India and the United States.