Unbuilding our cities

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Nityanand Jayaraman
The 2015 Chennai floods spotlighted how unwise land use made the city vulnerable to a regular visitor: the unruly, unpredictable Northeast monsoon. The jury is out on whether the downpour was a result of climate change. But one thing is certain: climate change will only worsen the vulnerabilities caused by bad land use conversions.
In the past year, considerable newsprint and airtime has been spent in questioning what the government is doing to flood-proof the city. The State government pointed out that it is building storm water drains, removing encroachments, de-silting waterbodies, bridges and culverts, and sprucing up its early warning and disaster response machinery. But even as one agency works to undo some of the damage caused by decades of bad decisions, numerous others are furiously building ill-designed bridges and roads, flattening dunes, and filling up salt pans and water bodies.
The state’s response is inadequate given the magnitude of the crises. Laying stormwater drains to evacuate water from high-density residential areas built inside lakes and floodplains cannot but be inadequate. And what about other natural shocks? Other than heavy rains turning into floods, cyclonic storms, heat waves and water scarcity resulting from failed rains are the other regulars in Chennai. Evacuating rainwater to save the city from floods may increase vulnerability to water scarcity.
The absorbers for all these shocks are the same – nature’s defences. In Chennai’s case, dunes and sandy beaches offer some insurance against violent winds; by soaking up rainwater, they protect inland aquifers from salinity intrusion. Native vegetative cover, and a healthy network of waterbodies can regulate micro climates and enhance local water security, even while mitigating the flood potential of heavy rains.
The availability of open, unbuilt land and water is critical to the resilience of human settlements. But Chennai and other metropolises have growth agendas that are at odds with their ability to fortify themselves against natural shocks.
The 11th Five-Year Plan marked a policy shift from rural development to urban renewal. It celebrated urbanisation as “an indicator of economic development… [and] a positive factor for overall development.” The push-pull force – push more than pull – exerted by this shift has accelerated distress outmigration to urban centres. The 2011 Census recorded that India’s urban population grew more than rural India’s for the first time since 1921.
A GIS assessment done by CareEarth revealed that between 1999 and 2006, the area under ‘settlements’ grew from 44 sq km to 83.5 sq km, even as water bodies shrunk from 33.55 sq km to 12.62 sq km.
Urbanisation results in increased built-up area which requires workers, usually migrants. With affordable housing for the working poor absent, informal settlements come up in vulnerable areas in floodplains and along the margins of seas and waterbodies to accommodate each new wave of migrants. Less than two weeks ago, the Tamil Nadu government told the Madras High Court of more than 55,000 “encroachments” on the banks of the Adyar and Cooum rivers and the Buckingham Canal. The court wants them evicted. The city’s wetlands, be it the marshlands to the south or the sprawling creek and salt pans in the north, have all been encroached upon not by squatter settlements but by licensed infrastructures of industry and urbanisation. No court will order their eviction. So far, 4,134 squatter families have reportedly been removed to a slum tenement, 40 km away from the city centre. But this will have little effect on Chennai’s flood vulnerability. The poor quality of the kutcha squatter homes lack the structural integrity to divert flood waters. They are a threat to themselves. Ironically, the new multi-storey tenements for the ousted squatters are located within a flood-prone marsh. These licensed buildings and their elite counterparts, like the ELCOT IT SEZ also located in the marsh, are a threat to themselves and others around them.
The court is preoccupied with encroachments as defined by the laws of man. Floodwaters follow the laws of nature: here, encroachments are defined by location, not license.
The greater threat
Chennai’s preoccupation with rain-related flooding ignores a greater threat – the sea. Even if the inadequate national commitments for carbon cuts pledged in the Paris climate summit are honoured, the world is looking at a 2° Celsius hotter planet. A 4°C rise cannot be ruled out.
Climate Central, a U.S.-based NGO, has modelled the impacts of sea level rise on coastal cities worldwide. This model predicts a 4.9 metre rise along Chennai’s coast for the 2°C scenario, and a 9.1 metre rise at 4° C. At 4.9 metres, Chennai’s famed IT corridor will be under water; the East Coast Road will transform into a truly scenic roadway hemmed on either side by the sea and an unbroken expanse of backwaters.
The denser cities of Mumbai, Kochi and Kolkata are even worse off. In all these cities, river and creek openings to the sea will be the gateways for the sea’s inexorable entry inland.
The urban melting pot may well offer the possibility of human advancement and escape from socio-cultural vulnerabilities. Increasingly, though, the urban itself is vulnerable environmentally. Going into the future, then, the need is for new urban imaginations that come without the concentration of built-up space.
In the past year, there has been much talk about building climate-resilient cities. You can’t build climate-resilient cities. You unbuild them.
Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.

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