Poor urban planning and implementation. Politics, corruption, apathy. El Niño. Northeast monsoon. Chaos! The best and worst of humanity to the fore.

El Niño, that weird weather phenomenon that is not yet fully understood, is gaining strength in the equatorial waters of the Pacific Ocean. Formally known as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), it involves higher than warmer water in a belt stretching approximately between 120°W and 180° longitudes. This phenomenon was observed in olden times around Christmas child and came to be called El Niño (el niño = the boy child, but with capital letters, El Niño means Christ child).

The unusually warm waters cause the air that is in contact with the ocean surface to heat up. This alters the pressure distribution – remember that when surface air gets heated, it expands and rises, causing a low pressure near the surface. This heating leads to other changes in pressure and air circulation. The details of these are too much for this column, but suffice it to say that the entire world is affected with (a) unseasonal, and (b) severe weather conditions.

This means temperature and precipitation conditions become abnormal.

The current ENSO has been described as very strong.

When extreme heat or precipitation conditions occur over agricultural land, crops are destroyed. Both lives and livelihoods are negatively affected. Prices of commodities, especially food grains, will rise dramatically. This further exacerbates (i.e., makes worse) poverty. As always, the poorer sections of society are the most severely affected.

Access to food, especially for vast sections of a nation’s population who may be poor, becomes increasingly difficult. This can lead to social unrest as protests are likely to occur. Profiteering – hoarding grains to decrease supply and drive up prices – will be a huge problem.

In India, some decades ago, it used to be said that feast or famine was just one missed monsoon away. Each year’s food supply was dependent entirely on the monsoon. Over time, with many changes in policies and practices in the agricultural sector, we now have reasonably good quantities of grain and pulse stockpiles. These will help out. For a time.

Witness the severity of the floods in Chennai this past fortnight. Many people seem to think this is a “natural disaster”! As I have always said in this column, there is no such thing as a “natural disaster.” While it is true that the rainfall has been unusually heavy and unremitting, much of the resulting devastation was avoidable.

Geography has been applied for planning out how we shape our settlements for a long time now. This field is called urban planning. Urban planning identifies a large number of geographical factors (land conditions, weather patterns, political issues, economic patterns, land use, and so on) and scientifically arrives at the best possible uses for different areas of a city. These result in zoning – residential, office, industrial, agricultural, recreational, commercial, and other zones.

Once arrived at based on sound scientific principles, these are supposed to be put up for discussion by outside experts and the public. This, sadly, is not always done. Even when the zoning recommendations are made, political powers ignore them and change them at their will – to make money.

Over time, the organization of human activities in the city become completely hap-hazard and often either create problems or aggravate existing problems or, worse, do both.

I have heard some fairly bad stories friends who have worked in urban planning in Bangalore about how political and other power groups completely disregard the meticulously well-designed urban plans that my friend’s team has presented. Repeatedly. Sadly, this is true of most cities in India and Chennai is no exception.

Apart from these, the public also contribute heavily to the situation. One of the most obvious way in which we do this is the way throw garbage into the streets and drain gutters. Others include paving every available centimetre of space around our buildings, building in unsuitable areas (e.g.: lake beds), and so on. We look at our short-term convenience rather than long-term impacts and sustainability. Result? Flooding endangering not just us, but many others for no fault of theirs.

Next time you have some rubbish to throw away, please … please guide yourself to a proper dust bin and throw it properly into the bin. If you don’t see a bin immediately, find a way to keep the rubbish with you until you do see a proper bin and then dispose of your rubbish properly.

Educate adults in your life to do likewise. There is a lot that adults need to learn from children. Age is no barrier to teaching or learning. You can lead. Only by setting an example yourself.

These practices are never one-off, one-time affairs. Having garbage awareness week or day or moth is not enough. Proper disposal of rubbish and, by extension good environmental practices, must become part of who we are.

You are the hope.

Things you can do:

  1. Examine your neighborhood’s geography (topography, drainage, etc.), map it out in as much detail as you can.
  2. On this map, show the important problem points that could cause problems with drainage etc. E.g.: rubbish piles, clogged drains, waste thrown around on streets, etc. (Remember, flooding is not the only problem; consider mosquito breeding sites, sewage overflow points, etc. which are all public health hazards for everyone!)
  3. Use this to understand what needs to be done to improve the drainage of your area.
  4. Using your map, explain to your neighbors the need for them to take greater care about where they dispose their trash. They are more likely to listen to you if you have some solutions to suggest and offer to help them learn how to do things in a more environment-friendly way.
  5. If you do carry out this project, prepare a study about it and share it with other geographers at the International Geography Youth Summit – 2016 (20-22 September). (Details will be announced in the near future. )

A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 10 December 2016

Featured image, courtesy: The Indian Express.


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