By Sushmita Krishnan
In the midst of global leaders hashing out policy amendments at COP28, many coastal cities in India find themselves submerged in the aftermath of Cyclone Michaung. Take Chennai, a bustling capital that is home to a million people from all corners of the country, drawn here by the pursuits of education, work, or livelihood. This coastal city bears the scars of annual flooding, the 2004 tsunami, and recurrent loss and displacement of property and wealth. After the deluge in 2015 caused by Northeast monsoon rains, 2023 emerges as yet another chapter in the city's watery history.
Cyclone Michaung, with its deadly toll and extensive damage in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, has once again sunk Chennai into the depths. Striking visuals circulating on the internet show submerged homes and vehicles being swept away by currents on flooded roads. While the cyclone serves as the primary culprit for the recent chaos, it's not the lone factor contributing to the widespread devastation.
The vulnerability of Indian coastal regions takes center stage, as the heightened risk of increased flooding looms over low-lying coastal areas and river deltas. Other cities, including Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, all with dense populations and substantial infrastructure gaps, grapple with the consequences of unplanned urbanization and encroachments on water bodies, raising the specter of more frequent and severe floods. The potential displacement of millions threatens both livelihoods and infrastructure.
The roots of these floods are diverse, stemming from intense precipitation, inadequate drainage infrastructure, and the significant impact of urbanization. Notably, only 15 percent of Chennai's wetlands remain as a relic of development plans from the last half-century. The city's flat topography further complicates matters, impeding efficient water drainage.
Research commissioned by the World Bank Group, undertaken by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, warns of India's vulnerability to pronounced increases in sea levels due to its Equatorial proximity. This presents a substantial hazard to coastal cities, giving rise to issues such as saltwater intrusion, agricultural impact, groundwater deterioration, and a potential surge in waterborne diseases.
A 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues ominous predictions for India, underlining the most perilous risk—the escalating sea levels that could submerge a dozen coastal cities by the close of the century.
Isn't it true that too much cannot fit into too little? Each December, Chennai echoes with danger as rains inundate the city, a reminder of the harsh reality of climate change impacting the lives of ordinary people. From December 2023, households have been submerged, leaving residents without food, water, electricity, or even basic sanitation facilities. In this dire situation, women and children find themselves helpless, with all modes of transport suspended, trapping people in a lament over the harsh realities of climate change.
As per the IPCC report, by the end of the century, about a dozen Indian cities, including Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi, and Visakhapatnam, may find themselves submerged by nearly three feet of water.
The blame game ensues—is it the government, the policies that govern us, or the reflection staring back at us in the mirror? Climate action is not the responsibility of a third party but a collective imperative for every sector of society.
So, what's the way forward? Tackling these challenges demands a comprehensive approach. Rigorous enforcement of building codes and proactive urban planning to anticipate climate-related disasters are essential steps. To fend off the rising seas, it is crucial to implement coastal embankments and diligently enforce Coastal Regulation Zone codes. Additionally, managing watersheds and embracing the concept of a 'sponge city' could help mitigate the risks of flooding.
The recent floods in India serve as a stark reminder and a call to action to construct cities capable of withstanding the unpredictable and severe impacts of a changing climate. As Indian cities continue to expand and attract more residents, the need for resilient infrastructure and sustainable urban planning has never been more urgent.