When an unprecedentedly heavy northeast monsoon hit Tamil Nadu this year, the subsequent flooding in Chennai and other coastal areas took an unprepared state government and a tragically unsuspecting public totally by surprise. Only a tiny group of technology and urban planning experts, who had long been banging their collective heads against walls of neglect, ignorance and apathy were not surprised at the grief and devastation that was wrought.
It has long been known in these circles that the encroachment of natural bodies such as lakes, tanks, marshes, ponds and of natural drainage channels like rivers, nullahs and creeks would cost us dearly come high water. That's exactly what happened -- lives were lost and property worth hundreds of crores destroyed. So, now that lessons have been learned the hard way, what are the immediate steps that should be taken to prevent a recurrence when the next big monsoon comes along?
We have the technological tools and the opportunity to arrest years of damage and perhaps even reverse our destructive course.
Step 1: Acknowledge the problem realistically
Housing estates have been built on lake-beds and runways on marshes; there is no simple undo button for this sort of thing. The problem we now have is to identify what's left and save what can be saved, trying to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube as the first step will get us nowhere.
Step 2: We have the technology, let's use it!
Indian remote sensing satellites provide highly accurate satellite imagery for end users. GPS technologies provide sub-centimetre accurate data while aerial photography provides centimetre-level data. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology can then convert all this data into highly accurate maps of the water bodies.
Step 3: This is not a one-off exercise; capture the data at regular intervals and at different times
It is important to capture data on a periodic basis to get a really accurate depiction of what is left. In urban areas, water bodies must be GIS mapped twice a year at least. A temporal analysis (making the maps "time aware", rather like a time-lapse video) allows analysts to look at change in all water bodies over an entire region over a specific period of time, as well as changes in a specific water body over a defined time span.
Step 4: Professionally analyse the reasons for change
A scientific study that shows the true causes of disappearance leaves little room for political debate, allows policy makers to make recommendations in a more objective fashion and gives the executive the socio-political space to implement changes.
Step 5: Once the analysis is complete, do the right thing
Simply implementing existing laws in letter as well as in spirit can be very effective. India has a plethora of laws on land use, wetland protection, urban development, etc. that are observed mainly in the breach. Other steps like regular maintenance of water bodies to clean sediments and plant residuals and improvement of drainage infrastructure will be a natural corollary if the rules are observed in the first place.
We have the technological tools and the opportunity to arrest years of damage and perhaps even reverse our destructive course. Future generations will be unforgiving if we squander both.
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