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Rivers That Remember and Cities That Forget

Vikram Doctor wrote this piece 10 years ago when Mumbai and Chennai faced really bad flooding. This year, Mumbai escaped flooding because of near failure of the monsoon, but Chennai’s flooding has been ever worse -and made all the more so by the way the unrestricted development that caused the flooding 10 years ago continued without check

Government officials will probably evade blame by pointing to the exceptional rainfall. It has been extraordinary, but it should not let them off the hook. As this piece shows, 10 years back the warning signs were there. The construction of the Metro along the Buckingham Canal was just starting; now the Metro is near complete and the blocking of the Canal, following on the development has become far worse.The piece below mentions how the Cooum become blocked because of its upstream waters being diverted into the Chembarambakkam reservoir. Today the rains have made the Cooum a swift-flowing river again, except that with all the blockages that have developed over the years, it is flowing sideways as much as forwards. (We should at least be thankful that another hare-brained Corporation scheme, to cover the Cooum entirely, was never executed). Meanwhile the Chembarambakkam reservoir is bursting its banks.

10 years back, as the piece below notes, the city was able to recover from its flooding fast. Today it shows no signs of being able to bounce back, and the excessive, continued rains cannot be the only reason. Across the city there are stories of areas where local residents have managed to get their drains fixed and rainwater harvesting pits dug, and they are coming through this relatively unscathed. But where people have depended on the hapless Corporation or uncaring builders, the results have been terrible.

Chennai will recover from this, but it will leave a question: can this happen again, 10 years from now, or less? And what of Mumbai or Kolkata or all those other cities where politicians, planners and developers have combined to ignore the old waterways and pretend that such floods will not happen again. All we know for sure is that they will, and if left ignored the rivers that run beneath us will return).

Cities and rivers go together. Many cities have started on the banks of rivers because of access they afford to fresh water and navigation. Yet cities have a strange tendency to forget their rivers.

As they grow in size they create alternate systems of water storage like reservoirs, reducing their immediate dependence on the rivers for fresh water. Rail and road systems are used more than the river for navigation. And as sewers drain in the river and industries spill effluents into it, the river becomes an embarrassment, to be walled away or even covered up as if they were no more than drains.

Big mistake. If there is one common pattern linking the recent floodings in Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai, it could be the neglect of the urban rivers in these cities. All three cities have contrived to ignore their internal rivers and the results have been seen, most catastrophically with Mumbai’s Mithi River, but subtly too with Kolkata Tolly Nullah and Chennai Cooum Rover and Buckingham Canal.

“A river is unforgiving,“ says Mumbai based environmentalist Bittu Sahgal sombrely. “You can try to forget it, but one day it will make its presence felt.“

This was a folly long foreseen. Way back in 1951 historian JR Martin blamed it on the early British colonists. He wrote: “It has been observed that of all the European nations who have planted distant settlements, the English have invariably shown the least regard for the proper selection of localities for the sites of their colonial cities; and I think this must in general be ascribed to the commercial spirit taking the lead… the emboucheres of great rivers were the first object of desire.“ (Quoted in Rhoads Murphey’s History of the City in Monsoon Asia).Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai were all British creations and it’s easy to see what Martin meant. Choosing to settle on the mouths of rivers made economic sense, but it was asking for long term problems.

Sahgal puts his finger on why: “When urban planners consider rivers, they always tend to plan for its minimum level. But there will always come a time maybe in four years, maybe in 40 when today’s calm stream will become a raging torrent.“

Rivers are nature’s drainage system, and when nature turns on the taps, the rivers will fill up.How do the cities built along them cope then?
In Chennai and Kolkata, the British did at least invest in extending the water systems, even if this was done for economic rather than environmen tal reasons. In Kolkata this was done by Major William Tolly who in 1775-76 took on the task of creating a more reliable water route to the city than the existing Upper and Lower Sunderbans Passages which were, respectively, too small to allow for large ships and too dangerous at the height of the monsoons. Major Tolly proposed to the East India Company that he would dredge, at his own expense, the heavily silted Adi Ganga river near Kalighat to create a safe and navigable canal.

The Company agreed, giving Major Tolly the license to collect tolls from the ships that would use the canal. Working at a pace that would amaze today’s Public Works Departments, the canal was made ready in just over two years, opening for navigation in 1777. Less noticed than the economic benefit of Tolly’s Nullah, as it became known, was the fact that the desilting reopened a channel for the drainage of floodwaters.

Tolly operated his canal till his death in 1784 (he is still remembered in the area around the nullah known as Tollygunge), after which the lease was sold to a Mr James Wilkins, but due to his poor management, the Company finally took over the running of the canal itself. The canal was profitable in the beginning, but over time as steamships came in, faster and less prone to monsoon vagaries, it’s importance declined. The process started of the slow decay of the nullah and other Kolkata canals like the Bagjola canal in the city’s north-east and the Krishnapur canal in the north.

By the end of the 90s, a survey estimated that the latter were 50-70 per cent blocked, and Tolly’s nullah was 40 per cent blocked. In 1999, heavy flooding brought home to the city the consequences of letting this happen.

A similar process had taken place in Chennai.For such a perennially water-starved place, the city actually has quite an extensive drainage system. Two main rivers cross the city, the Adayar and the Cooum, collecting the waters of a number of seasonal creeks and the traditional system of tanks that overflow into each other.

“Historically Tamil Nadu has had one of the most sophisticated systems of water collection and management,“ says Sahgal. The region has always had an uneven system of rains, with long spells and then sudden cyclonic bursts. The tanks were meant to ensure that every drop of water was collected, but when too much came through it could drain into the rivers.

Building the Buckingham Canal started in 1876 as part of a series of public works projects initiated by the Duke of Buckingham, then the Governor of Madras, to provide employment during a severe famine in the region. Built in different stages, the Canal system would ultimately extend along the east coast for 420 kilometres from Ganjam in Orissa to Marakkanam in Tamil Nadu. Around 31 kilometres of it falls within Chennai where it intersects both the Adayar and Cooum rivers, and also serves as an exit point for other drainage systems like the Otteri Nullah and the Captain Cotton Canal.

The Buckingham Canal was navigable until as recently as 1940, but post-Independence its use declined and came to a halt altogether in 1965 when a cyclone destroyed the remaining mooring areas. Following that the Canal declined into becoming a mere recipient for sewer outfalls and industrial waste.

In the same period, the same was to happen to the Cooum which, after diversion of part of its waters into the Chembarambakkam reservoir, lost much of its natural flow and became the near stagnant river it is today. Both Canal and Cooum became notorious for their stink and the mosquitoes they bred, and despite several proposals to clean them up, little was done for years.

Both in Chennai and Kolkata then the grounds for trouble were set, and recently another threat has emerged. The importance of the waterway areas for transport has re-emerged, but not on water.

Urban planners realised that the land along the Canal in Chennai and the Nullah in Kolkata was open public land that cut through important parts of the city apparently ideal space on which to build rail links. Chennai’s elevated railway has come up now along large stretches of the Buckingham Canal and in Kolkata the Metro proposes to build a new section from Tollygunge to Garia along the old Nullah.

Some results of this have already been seen. In 2002, floods in part of Chennai were blamed on construction from the railway which had blocked cul verts that allowed excess water into the Pallikaranai marshlands that are a natural drainage point for the city. This year too, areas along the canal where the railway has come up were quickly flooded.

To be fair, when the rains ceased, the waters did recede quite fast, suggesting that the Canal is still serving a purpose. But the rapidity with which the floods took over the city does suggest that Chennai needs to do some hard thinking about its water system. “The argument in Chennai has always been that it is hard to flush out the canals because through most of the year there isn’t enough water,“ says S. Muthiah, Chennai’s noted historian. “But something has to be done because these floods indicate the extent to which the drains are clogged.“

Chennai’s city officials have said that the amount of rain was unprecedented. The government’s own statistics, on the Chennai Metro Water website suggest this isn’t quite so the rainfall for October 2005 is certainly high at 585 mm, but there have been high spells before, in October 1969 for example, with 656 mm or November 1991 with 594 mm.

A more plausible claim is that, as in Mumbai on July 26th, much of the rain fell in an intense burst of 21 cm in just five hours on 27th October. But as Sahgal points out, this may now to the way our rain comes to us: “Along with hotter weather we seem to be moving towards monsoon patterns that deliver larger bursts in shorter periods.“

Chennai on Thursday was certainly far from being Mumbai on July 26th. The city’s generally efficient municipality swung into action soon, putting plenty of police, properly kitted out in rainwear, out on the streets, the fire brigade was on full alert and squads were out to deal with problems like fallen trees quickly.

By the evening of Thursday, relief operations were starting with displaced people accommodated in schools and food being distributed. Perhaps it was existing planning, perhaps the city had been warned by Mumbai’s nightmare.

Yet welcome as such post deluge efforts were, perhaps cities need to start thinking a little before, to dealing with their drainage problems, before the drainage deals with them. “Here in Mumbai one gets the sense that the citizens know what needs to be done, but the penny has still not dropped with the planners,“ says Sahgal. “They are talking about small things like hutments, when they need to be looking at the larger issue of why the whole mouth of the Mithi has got blocked by projects like the Bandra-Mahim Sealink.“

Rivers, he repeats, are unforgiving, and while we might forget them, you can be sure that someday they will remind us that they [email protected]

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