Bumbling Bureaucratic B@stards caused the Chennai Flood?

Delay in decision to open sluice gates caused flood of trouble

CHENNAI: The flood that ravaged Chennai last week was not a natural disaster, but one caused by the state bureaucracy’s failure to regulate release of water from Chembarambakkam reservoir (lake) in the outskirts of the city. 

Those privy to developments in the state secretariat during the last week of November say that in the wake of international weather forecast agencies predicting 500mm of rain for Chennai on December 1 and 2, public works department (PWD) officials had advised the PWD secretary and other senior bureaucrats on November 26 to bring down the water level in the reservoir from 22ft to below 18ft so the lake could absorb heavy inflow four days later. There was not much rain between November 26 and 29 and Adyar river, too, which originates from this lake, had very little water. 

The proposal to release lake water was caught in bureaucratic red tape. Sources said the PWD secretary waited for chief secretary’s nod to open the sluice gates -and whose nod the chief secretary was waiting for still remains a mystery.In effect, the disaster caused in Punjab by heavy release of water from the Bhakra Nangal dam two years ago was repeated in Chennai. 

Orders to open the Chembarambakkam sluice gates -rather flood gates -were not received till the city received was pounded with rain and the reservoir started overflowing. “The state administration maintained that the release from the reservoir into Adyar river was only 33,500 cusecs (cubic feet per second; 1 cubic ft is 28.3 litres of water), which is the maximum capacity of the gates, from December 1 night onwards. But the actual release was more than double that, and nobody has any idea how much it was because water was overflowing from Chembarambakkam after the reservoir reached its full capacity of 24 feet. The problem was compounded as Athannur lake breached, releasing about 5,000 cusecs into the Adyar,” said a highly placed source in PWD. 

In effect, Adyar was carrying more than one lakh cusecs of water on December 2 and 3, said a senior IAS official, who was coordinating rescue operations. “The city has paid the price for having a bunch of bureaucrats who don’t have the guts to act on their own.We were lucky that the reservoir, despite overflowing, did not breach,” he said. 

“Flooding of Chennai and suburbs could have been averted by better management of water release,” said Madras Institute of Development Studies professor S Janakarajan. The administration should not have viewed Chembarambakkam in isolation. The lake and Adyar river are connected to about 200 tanks, he said. Even if 33,500 cusecs had been released from Chembarambakkam, by the time the water reached Saidapet, it would have swelled to 60,000 cusecs because of additional flow from other water bodies enroute. The administration failed to gauge this and hapless people paid the price for it, he explained. 

Janakarajan said the government should view all water bodies, roughly 3,600 of them, in Chennai, Kancheepuram and Thiruvallur districts as one watershed as they are hydrologically connected to one another. “If the government cleans up all those water bodies, they can hold about 30 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water.Moreover, it will also prevent flooding in future,” he said. 

The magnitude of the disaster was more because there was no advisory issued to people living in low-lying areas, warning them that their homes could get flooded.To add to the misery, Chennai city police officers were instructed to keep their cell phones switched off (much before mobile phone towers went down) and carry out all communications only through wireless sets. Hence, people in distress could not seek help by reaching out to officials in their locality. 

TOI’s repeated efforts to get responses from the chief secretary and PWD secretary went in vain.Some pertinent questions that remain unanswered are: Whose orders were the bureaucrats waiting for to open the reservoir sluices? Will anybody be held responsible for the lapses? And, at least now, will the government put a standard operating procedure in place to keep reservoirs at safe levels? Will a better system be evolved to warn people living on river banks before gates are opened? 

Washing machines on the street 

The lack of a warning about the huge discharge from Chembarambakkam reservoir not only devastated the banks of Adyar but also submerged T Nagar and its bylanes, leaving middle and low-income colonies in distress.Tonnes of food grains from grocery shops and household items, including washing machines, are on road-side dumps in every corner of the neighbourhood. Having lost items worth thousands of rupees, the residents were picking up pieces. TNN

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