“So far, not a drop of water has entered our homes,” Chitti Babu, a resident of Sidco Nagar in West Chennai, said proudly on Wednesday after a week of heavy rainfall.

The situation is a far cry from 2015 when what was called the heaviest rainfall in 100 years left this neighbourhood built on a lake bed under several feet of water for days. More than 300 flood-related deaths were reported across Tamil Nadu during the October-December Northeast Monsoon that year. In Chennai, the flooding was largely blamed on poorly constructed and ill-maintained drains and illegal construction on water bodies.

The reason why Sidco Nagar and many other residential areas in Chennai have managed to avoid waterlogging despite heavy rain all through last week is because the residents, through their persistence, got the municipal corporation to clean and expand stormwater drains in their areas.

Babu, the 70-year-old general secretary of the Sidco Nagar Residents Welfare Association, said maintenance work on stormwater drains in his neighbourhood started a few months ago. The existing drains were widened to five feet in height and depth, and links were constructed where breakages were found.

The measures proved effective and there has been no waterlogging in Sidco Nagar so far. The rainwater is flowing smoothly into the nearby Otteri Nala, which is linked to the Buckingham canal, which in turn drains into the sea.

“I have written letters to many corporation officials thanking them for their cooperation in getting the stormwater drains cleared,” said Babu. “Nobody has complained to me about flooding in the area this time.”

Working drains

After the 2015 floods, the Chennai Corporation was soundly criticised for lack of maintenance of the city’s canal systems and drainage networks. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, tabled in the Assembly in July 2016, further stated that the city’s stormwater drains suffered from faulty construction and lack of planning.

In August last year, Scroll.in spoke to Babu Rajendran, who was then the chief engineer of special projects in the Chennai Corporation, and he said the civic body had identified vulnerable spots where stormwater drains had collapsed. “We are going to construct links here,” he said.

An emailed query to the corporation on Wednesday for an update on its flood-preparedness did not elicit a response till the time this report was published.

Last week, a report in The Hindu said a delay in the release of funds to create a network of drains and canals along two river basins had left Chennai largely unprepared for the monsoon.

This seemed to be the case as the city promptly flooded when the rains came on November 2. This gave rise to allegations of government inaction and fears of a repeat of the 2015 disaster.

While many Chennai neighbourhoods have avoided waterlogging because of maintenance work on their stormwater drains, large parts of the city's southeast remain under water a week after the rains started. (Credit: S Kolathur Residents Welfare Association)

But the positive results of citizens’ efforts in Sidco Nagar and several other areas have assuaged some of these fears. Take the case of Thoraipakkam. Located along the Pallikaranai marshland in South Chennai, this neighbourhood was severely waterlogged in 2015 because its drainage network, which is connected to the Okkiyam Madivu water channel, was clogged with debris.

All this debris was removed in the past few months. “There was smooth flow [of water] this time,” said resident Kalyan Arun. “The corporation officials have been cooperative. We kept putting pressure on them and meeting with them quite often before the onset of the monsoon.”

In some neighbourhoods like Nerkundram in Northwest Chennai, dry streets are a new phenomenon. The corporation interlinked stormwater drains here and there has been no stagnation of water on the roads ever since, reported The New Indian Express. “Over 130 km of stormwater drains have been constructed in zone 11 since the Chennai floods of 2015 under which Nerkundram comes,” the report quoted zonal officer Vijayakumar as saying.

Many areas still ignored

However, many other parts of the city, especially in the southwest, remain under water a week after the downpour started.

The neighbourhoods of Keelkatalai, Sunnambu Kolathur and Narayanapuram are situated between small lakes and separated from each other by elevated roads. With no way for the water to flow out into the nearby marshes, these residential areas face flooding every year.

After the 2015 floods, the S Kolathur Residents Welfare Association had petitioned both the Public Works Department and the chief minister’s office for a network of stormwater drains to be built in the area. “In 2015, they said they will make a concrete canal for the water to flow out,” said Sajid, secretary of the association. “But nothing has been done yet. Even now, they do not have a detailed project report.”

Government officials and ministers finally visited the locality a week after the rains, Sajid said. He added that the neighbourhood only managed to get the attention of the government and the media “since there has not been much flooding in other areas this year”.

Knee-deep water in southwest Chennai. (Credit: S Kolathur Residents Welfare Association)

Stormwater drains not the solution

However, experts point out that stormwater drains should not be the final stop in how Chennai tackles flooding and erratic weather. Satyarupa Shekhar of the non-profit Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group said these drains merely carry the water out to the sea, and it would be more effective to use the rainwater to recharge the groundwater – the levels of which have fallen drastically in recent years.

Shekhar also said such a policy would work better at a time when weather patterns like short bursts of rains and unreliable monsoons have become frequent. “Stormwater drains are inappropriate for a city like Chennai,” she said. “What we need is more water conservation and resilient infrastructure. Unless we do both, we will experience both floods and droughts.”