Cyclone Biparjoy and Chennai

When is a natural disaster a natural disaster? It began raining in Chennai last evening and hasn’t stopped as of this morning. But it’s been intermittent, with highly variable intensity. In my area, the wind has been feeble. I don’t know the situation in other areas because we haven’t had power since at least 3.45 am. My father tells me, from Bangalore, that early reports say Taramani (southern edge) and Nandanam (heart of the city) received 120 mm in the 24 hours until 5.30 am; Meenambakkam (outside the city, where the airport is) received 140 mm; and Nungambakkam (also heart of the city and near where I am) received 60 mm. @ChennaiRains has tweeted that the average rainfall in June in Chennai is 50 mm. Schools that were reopened just last week – after having been closed for two weeks longer than usual from the summer break due to a heatwave – have been closed again in four districts (Chengalpattu, Chennai, Kancheepuram, and Thiruvallur).

Does Chennai’s situation right now constitute a natural disaster? The consequences give that impression but the facts of the cause don’t. I’m sure some parts of the city have flooded as well, such as Pondy Bazaar (which, ironically, the state government had refurbished a few years ago under the ‘Smart Cities’ mission, including fitting a storm-water drain later found to have a critical design flaw) while many trees have been toppled. This is a city that has brought a state of disaster upon itself, like many other cities in India, thanks to their (oft-elected) leaders.

The problem at hand has two sides. One is that when a city has undermined its own ability to resist the worse consequences of an adverse natural event – such as receiving thrice the expected amount of rainfall for a month within 24 hours – it’s difficult to know what precipitated the disasterness, the state of experiencing a disaster: the city’s poor infrastructure or the intensity of the natural event. Determining exactly which one to blame is a nearly impossible problem to solve but attempting it could reveal, in the process, the most pressing problems to address at the local level. For example, right opposite my house is a vendor of construction materials who tends to close the nearest storm-water drain when loading or unloading sand to/from trucks, causing puddles of water to stagnate on the road, especially over some nasty potholes. There’s also a very rusted transformer at one end of the road and a sewage pipe that has burst at the other end. My block also doesn’t have power because I’m told a feeder line tripped in the night. But more fundamentally, this blame-apportionment exercise – the aggregate of all the local problems, for example – can be useful to piece together the true contributions of urban dysfunction to the city’s current disasterness, and contrast that with what the city’s and the state’s political leaders will soon claim the “actual problem” was, and attempt to take credit for “addressing” it.

The other side of the problem is that, thanks to climate change, we’re required to constantly update the way we think about disasters. For example, The Hindu has a good editorial today on India’s response to Cyclone Biparjoy, which made landfall over Kutch district last week as a ‘very severe cyclonic storm’. Thanks to the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD’s) accurate forecasts and the government response, only two casualties have been reported so far – versus the around-3,000 following a similar event at a similar location in June 1998. One reason there have been so few deaths this time is that the state government evacuated more than a lakh people from coastal areas, sparing them from being injured or killed by parts of their houses being blown in the wind or tossed in the water. That people were evacuated in time is a good thing but, the editorial asks, why do they have houses that can be so easily destroyed in the first place? The point is that disaster response has improved considerably, but it’s nowhere near where it actually needs to be: where the intensity at which a disaster happens following a natural event is much further along than it is today. Put another way, while the response to a disaster may never be perfect, there are ways to measure its success – and then when it is successful, we need to pay attention to how that success was defined.

When 3,000 people died, it was reasonable to ask why the IMD’s forecasts weren’t good enough and how the death toll could be lowered. When two people died, it became time to move past these measures and ask, for example, why so many people had to be evacuated and how many rupees in income they lost (that they won’t be able to recoup). This is less an attempt to downplay the significance of India’s achievement – it really is tremendous progress for 25 years – and more an acknowledgment of the nature of the beast: disasters are getting bigger, badder, and, importantly, pervasive in a way that they endanger more than lives. The living suffer, too. Storms render the seas choppy, destroy boats and fishing nets, deteriorate living conditions in less-than-pucca houses, eliminate livelihoods, and increase (informal) indebtedness. Evacuating a fisher’s family will improve its chance of living to tell the tale, but will that tale be anything other than one of greater destitution? It should be.

A related issue here is the subtle danger of using extreme measures: a focus on saving lives downplays and eventually sidelines the lack of protection for other aspects of living. They might be more recoverable, in a manner of speaking, but that doesn’t mean they will be recovered. And that’s what we need to focus on next, and next, and so forth, until our governments can guarantee the recoverability for everyone of, say, all the amenities assured by the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

The same goes for rain-battered cities. In the limited context of my locality, my problems are the sewage on the road, the threat of the sewage line mixing with the drinking-water line underground, the risk of a vehicular accident on my street, and power not being restored soon enough. Sure, there might be worse problems elsewhere, but these ones in particular seem to me to belong on the urban-dysfunction side of things. They make day-to-day life difficult, irritating, frustrating. They disrupt routines, increase the cognitive burden, and build stress. Over time, we have less happiness and higher healthcare expenses, both of which diverge unequally for more privileged versus less privileged people. The city as a whole could become more unequal in more ways, and the next time it rains, a new vicious cycle could be born. An agenda limited to saving lives will easily overlook this, as will an agenda that overlooks facets of life that aren’t problematic yet but could soon be.

Or maybe Chennai still has some way to go? The Tamil Nadu revenue and disaster-management minister Sattur Ramachandran just came on TV talking about how it’s notable that no lives were lost…