South India rains ease but poor urban planning feeds misery

AP News
Posted: Dec 04, 2015 6:15 AM
South India rains ease but poor urban planning feeds misery

NEW DELHI (AP) — The relentless rains that lashed southern India's Tamil Nadu state for three days eased Friday, but the misery of tens of thousands of people was far from over, with large parts of the main city still underwater along with the region's biggest airport.

As Chennai, the state capital, reeled from the heaviest rains in over a century, experts said the devastation was in large part due to the same breakneck and haphazard urban planning that has marked many of India's major cities.

It's a pattern that's been repeated for at least a decade. In 2005, India's commercial capital Mumbai came to a standstill after several days of monsoon rains. Last year, Srinagar in Indian Kashmir, saw massive devastation as flood waters swallowed a city where unchecked construction had blocked rainwater channels and eaten into wetlands.

India's main monsoon season runs from June through September, but for Chennai and the rest of India's southeastern coast, the heaviest rainfall is from October to December — also called the retreating monsoon.

This year's deluge — which experts linked to the El Nino weather pattern, when the waters of the Pacific Ocean get warmer than usual — caught Chennai, with a population of 9.6 million, completely unprepared.

One woman told NDTV news channel that she was finally able to get on a rescue boat Friday, three days after the rains began to lash the city.

The government has set up 97 relief camps, which are currently providing food and shelter to an estimated 62,000 people.

Dozens of homes across Chennai remained submerged too despite the rain ebbing.

Chennai's airport was closed for a third day. Photographs from earlier in the week showed large parts of the building and runway completely submerged. The Airports Authority of India has said that the airport would remain closed at least until Sunday.

Power supply has been erratic since the city turned off electricity to prevent deaths by electrocution. Mobile and fixed phone networks have been sporadic. Thousands of people have taken to Twitter and other social media to reach out to friends and family.

The Indian Meteorological Department on Friday scaled down a forecast for very heavy rains, but added that more rain or thunderstorms were likely.

"We have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that our urban sprawls such as Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai, Srinagar etc have not paid adequate attention to the natural water bodies that exist in them," said Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment, an advocacy and research organization.

"In Chennai, each of its lakes has a natural flood discharge channel which drains the spillover. But we have built over many of these water bodies, blocking the smooth flow of water," she said.

As the government struggled to reach all those impacted by the floods, residents teamed up on their own to distribute aid — packets of food, bottled water and bed sheets — in worst-hit neighborhoods.

"What is heartwarming is that the people of Chennai are helping out," said Arun Ebenezer, who has been forced to stay with a friend for three days after rain began to beat down on Tuesday.

On Friday, he tried to make his way home, but gave up after friends warned him that large parts of the city were still unsafe.

"A lot of people built their houses on lake beds. The government should not have approved those projects. Now they are all submerged," he said.