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The strategy document for Resilient Chennai
The strategy document for Resilient Chennai
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Chennai Unveils Strategy To Become Resilient

As part of The Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program, the Chennai Corporation is all set to make the city resilient

Sandhya Ravishankar

Sandhya Ravishankar

As the water crisis hits fever pitch, the Chennai Corporation unveiled a strategy today at its Ripon Building headquarters, which, once implemented, is expected to protect the city and its residents from drought, floods and all other natural or man-made calamities.

In effect, the Resilient Chennai project will help the fourth largest metropolis in India, capable of absorbing shocks and getting back to normalcy much quicker than it is now capable of.

The genesis of this project was in 2014 when Chennai became part of the global 100 Resilient Cities program helmed by The Rockefeller Foundation.

The devastating floods of 2015 in Chennai triggered the team into action. In January 2016, then Corporation Commissioner Vikram Kapur met with the 100 Resilient Cities team as well as with experts from the Netherlands and New Orleans who specialised in flood management.

Over two years, 3300 experts, residents & stakeholders were roped in, strategies defined and trashed, ground studies conducted, stakeholder meetings held and the end result was released by the Corporation Commissioner G Prakash on Thursday.

Chennai Corporation Commissioner G Prakash unveils the Resilient Chennai strategy at Ripon Building
Chennai Corporation Commissioner G Prakash unveils the Resilient Chennai strategy at Ripon Building
Pic courtesy: Sandhya Ravishankar

“To have resilience in a city starts with availability of water which is a basic resource,” said Prakash.

“There is increasing public expenditure across the world to bring water to cities. We have conveniently forgotten to harness the local water resources – like rain water harvesting for instance. Our honourable Amma’s government launched this scheme in 2003 but it lost relevance mid-way. We are now facing the brunt of it,” he said.

Making Chennai Resilient

The Resilient Chennai Strategy outlines five missions and breaks down each mission into various implementable strategies.

The missions are as follows.

1) Urbanising responsibility: To bring in an integrated approach within various government authorities to ensure that development takes place in a planned manner with environmental concerns factored in.

2) Carving a resilient future around our water resources: This spans from responsible usage of water to designing structures around water bodies and protecting them.

3) Making Chennai a prepared city: Data collection and usage of technology to cope with disasters, natural or man-made and to ensure that vulnerable groups are specifically targeted and protected.

4) Together, we lift Chennai: Knowledge transfer across government agencies, rather than the way they currently work in silos and ensuring that citizens participate in building the city’s resilience.

5) Valuing the city’s vulnerable: This is to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable sections of the city’s populations are met safe as they are the ones who bear the brunt of any disaster.

Water As Leverage

In the wake of floods in 2015 followed by four years of drought, Chennai’s resilience has been tested and has fallen short.

This strategy – Water As Leverage – takes inspiration from the Dutch ‘Room for the River’ concept, wherein the flood-prone Netherlands had redesigned its cities to ensure that buildings and properties were moved back and parks came up along rivers, so that in the event of floods, properties would not be submerged.

The Dutch Special Envoy for Water Henk Ovink, was key to implementation of this project in the Netherlands and he is advising the Resilient Chennai team on how Chennai too can learn to live with water instead of trying to fight it.

As part of the Water As Leverage strategy, a couple of immediate projects would be taken up this year itself.

The first is the Mambalam canal, currently a stinking drain filled with sewerage and garbage. “This is the spinal cord of Chennai,” said Jayshree Vencatesan, trustee of Care Earth, a non-profit working in conservation. “This canal flows between T Nagar and Mount Road. This can be a fantastic flood water channel if it is cleaned up and rejuvenated,” she said.

Along with the clean-up of the canal itself, the neighbourhood is envisioned to be redesigned with solar panels on all rooftops in the congested area.

The second project is in Mylapore and targets the wetlands, the Kapaleeswarar temple tank and building of new water tanks in the area. “This entire project has found a lot of interest and will go a long way towards recharging of ground water in the area. You may ask why it took two years for us to come up with this. But water is not just about hydrology, it is a complex social, ecological, economic issue. We even spoke to the vendors on the roadside near the temple to understand their needs. That is the kind of research that went into these strategies,” said Vencatesan.

Other Strategies

The other strategies that will be implemented soon are an aggressive campaign to encourage residents to build rooftop gardens. “This will also help the Corporation manage its wet waste and improve the green cover in the city,” said Krishna Mohan Ramachandran, Chief Resilient Officer for Chennai.

A data observatory would be set up to collect and collate data to predict and avert calamities and this observatory would be a multi-disciplinary team from government and IITs.

A climate change adaptation plan and an empathetic and resilient resettlement process will be prepared.

Awareness campaigns on the need to conserve and recycle water, on stopping littering, on waste disposal mechanisms and road safety are all on the anvil too. Three of the top ad agencies in the country, Ogilvy, Rubecon and Tinacca have agreed to prepare the material free of cost for Chennai city.

A novel idea in the strategy document is that of using school children as “change agents”. A book called Trashonomics, which speaks of the dangers of plastic use and other related environmental issues, will be translated into Tamil and distributed to three schools run by Chennai Corporation as a pilot project.

The reasoning behind this is that these children will take home the idea and educate their parents too about responsible disposal of garbage. They would also grow up to be responsible citizens and pass on these values to their children.

An organisation called Cityworks would help train the teachers and students on spreading the word.

From Paper To Implementation

Is this project going to be yet another one that bites the dust in a few years? The Resilient Chennai team does not think so.

“In 1800, only 10% of the world was cities. In 2017, 50% of the world was cities. In 2050, it is predicted that 75% of the world will be cities. Cities are the future. But 75% of the infrastructure that has to exist in 2050 has not been built yet,” said Krishna Mohan Ramachandran, CRO of Chennai. It is time, he says, to implement.

“The government of Tamil Nadu and the Chennai Corporation are already taking steps to rejuvenate 200 lakes,” said Lauren N Sorkin, Managing Director, Asia Pacific for 100 Resilient Cities. “These are steps that will improve resilience. But a lot more needs to be done.”

The government too appears to have finally understood that the time has come for serious measures for responsible water management if they have to avoid a repeat of the summer of 2019.

“We have been pumping water for 700-800 kilometres to this city,” said G Prakash, Corporation Commissioner of Chennai, in a reference to the Veeranam project. “We have come up with fleetfooted solutions which will not be sustainable in the next 20 years. We are accelerating towards a post-apocalyptic syndrome,” he said.

Hitting the brakes has to be done now. If the city’s USD 58 billion economy with a 6% growth rate has to live on, the wheels of government must move.