Exactly a year ago on Tuesday, heavy rains off the southeast coast of India set off a chain of events that resulted in one of the costliest disasters of 2015. Floods ravaged parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry between November and December last year. The city of Chennai was the hardest hit.

Reports suggest that in Tamil Nadu alone, over 300 people lost their lives, nearly two million people were displaced, and preliminary flood damages were estimated at Rs 8,400 crores.

The floods were even discussed at the climate change negotiations in Paris in December, leading to another plaintive request for “concrete and urgent action against climate disruption”. This week, as another round of climate talks kicks off in Morocco, it is worth noting that such extreme weather events are expected to rise in frequency. Cities, which have a higher share of population and infrastructure, are particularly at risk.

But is there something to be learnt from every disaster? Does each episode offer crucial lessons that can become part of the area’s institutional memory for disaster preparedness?

Private sector interventions

In the case of Chennai, stories of tragedy and hardship were shared in real time, as were the rescue efforts of the government, the Chennai Corporation, police, and the armed forces. But in the age of social media, another unique account emerged: that of the interventions of a number of community-based organisations and the private sector.

Cities depend on a host of private services such as restaurants, retail stores, freight and delivery operations, schools, hospitals, hotels, taxis, and other businesses. Their understanding of the city, its geography, and the people they come in contact with, is unparalleled, and they form a critical part of the fabric of an urban community.

Early this year, two urban development specialists, who work in Delhi but were born and brought up in Chennai, decided to gather lessons from the Chennai floods. The organisation they lead, TARU Leading Edge, has worked extensively on cities and disaster resilience and is currently gathering evidence on resilience interventions in India and South East Asia as part of the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network.

"Building resilience requires learning from both experience and science for addressing new and emerging urban challenges,"said Umamaheshwaran Rajasekar, the TARU director. "My colleagues and I wanted to capture some of the initiatives undertaken by various groups to manage the disaster to help others learn and incorporate such practices within their preparedness, prevention and response plans.”

The stories they collected, along with the attendant lessons, capture how a number of organisations were able to play to their strengths, and also employ innovative means to help the city in myriad ways during the disaster.

For instance, the Global Positioning System-equipped taxi service Ola Cabs formed a rescue team to transport food, water, and medical supplies to parts of flood-hit Chennai. What started out as a joke on Twitter – about Ola needing to provide boats instead of cars – was taken seriously by the taxi aggregator. Ola contacted local firemen and the Chennai Sport Fishing Company to gather details of local rowers and fishermen in order to provide free boat services in waterlogged and partially-submerged areas using information provided by the fire and rescue department. What is more, Ola replicated this effort during the floods in Allahabad and Varanasi in August.

In another part of Chennai, Kolapasi – a local catering service in Adyar, a neighbourhood in South Chennai – started serving free food to stranded people. It distributed approximately 6,000 food packets to people affected by the floods. Hotel Checkers in Anna Salai was one of the hotels that converted its banquet halls into dormitories for staff unable to go home because of the flooding. Many car dealers sent warning text messages to their customers warning them against driving through flooded roads. Car owners were also advised not to start cars in waterlogged areas to prevent hydrolock – a condition in an internal combustion engine that can lead to mechanical failure and engine seizure.

Having learnt from their experiences during the Kashmir floods of 2014 and Mumbai floods of 2005, automotive companies such as Toyota, Renault, Maruti, Hyundai and Nissan were better prepared to act through their dealers and service stations in Tamil Nadu.

Giving a hand

Similarly, after the Union government announced that the state-owned BSNL would not charge its customers for a week during the flooding last year, other telecom companies followed suit, providing their customers with free talk time.

Servals Automation, a Chennai-based social enterprise that provides rural energy products, started a programme called Marumalarchi to distribute cooking fuel and stoves to migrants and slum dwellers so that they could cook food and boil water, two critical requirements, in a flood-hit area.

For every account of hyper-inflated costs of water, vegetables, and airline tickets, and the government’s intervention to check these practices, there were stories of positive efforts by private entities, driven, no doubt, by civic responsibility, but also positive brand implications in the long run.

There is an untapped potential for the private sector to provide skilled services in the form of technical manpower or in-kind donations of their goods or services during emergency situations. In addition, in a situation when timing is key, a number of these agencies have local knowledge and distribution networks to help fill crucial gaps in government efforts. Rather than a one-off exercise in volunteerism, therefore, a greater collaboration between the public and private sectors is merited.

In the case of India, the newly drafted National Disaster Management Plan talks about private sector inclusion but from the perspective of businesses integrating disaster risk into their management practices and providing technical support during reconstruction efforts. Their role during emergency response is not spelt out. Through incentives and mandates, relevant businesses – not just national but also local entities– can be co-opted at the state and municipal level in disaster management initiatives.

Helping themselves

But what is in it for these companies? Businesses themselves are at risk from climate impacts during extreme weather events, in the form of supply chain disruptions, structural damage, and impacts on employees and thereby operations.

According to the CDP Global Cities Report, it is estimated that 80% of the global Gross Domestic Product is generated in cities, and assets worth $4 trillion are at risk from climate-related events in cities.

In Chennai, micro, small and medium enterprises lost an estimated Rs 1,700 crores due to the floods last year. Moreover, persistent rainfall and flooding forced several major automakers in the region to shut operations, thereby also incurring losses. It is evident that private sector efforts and investment in disaster risk resilience at every stage would not just aid cities, but help their businesses in turn too.

In May, barely five months after the floods, Chennai received 20 cm of rain in 24 hours, leaving parts of the city waterlogged. People feared the worst again. Although Cyclone Roanu, which caused the conditions that led to this excessive rain, ultimately did not hit the region, Chennai was better prepared this time with Indian Administrative Services officers, medical teams, and equipment like water pumps on standby. Such efforts at preparedness can be further complemented by co-opting private sector organisations – they are intrinsically linked to cities and have much to lose during extreme weather events, but also have much to offer to help the city get back on its feet.

Anu Jogesh is policy and governance lead at Acclimatise, a climate adaptation and risk resilience organisation.