5 min read.Updated: 31 Dec 2019, 10:20 PM ISTKarthikeyan Hemalatha
In Chennai, which has seen a string of extreme weather events, the threat of climate change is real and has been a wake-up call
The relationship between Chennaiites and their beach is as old as the city itself. Student-volunteers greeting nesting turtles, young lovers finding a quiet spot, grandmothers in saris and sneakers on daily walks and fishermen unknotting nets—the beach has space for everyone, and each person has his or her own ties to the sea. Fifteen years ago, this relationship was briefly tested when the 2004 tsunami hit the city.
There’s a threat looming again from the sea: a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that 730,000 people in Chennai and property worth more than $100 billion would be exposed to flooding with a 50cm sea-level rise. Chennai is also among the 20 cities with the highest proportional increase in exposed population by the 2070s by when sea levels would have increased by half a metre.
But Chennaiites aren’t sitting back. Its millennials—born between 1981 and 1996—are leading the charge to create awareness about climate change and sea-level rise, much like their contemporaries around the world.
The floods of 2015, the subsequent drought and the water crisis of 2019 have brought the climate crisis centre stage. “It was definitely a turning point in how Chennaiites saw climate," says Daniel Robinson, 38, city director for C40 Cities, a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change, who works closely with the government.
“The government has realized how vulnerable the city is to climate change. Yet, environmental clearance is given to projects built on wetlands. There is a bureaucratic inertia that is difficult to shake off," says Pooja Kumar, 28, from Vetiver Collective, who works with local fishing communities and government bodies to save the city’s wetlands.
A city of eight million people, Chennai has witnessed massive protests, and youngsters have always been the driving force. From the student-led protests against Hindi imposition in the 1960s to the 2011 India Against Corruption rallies, it’s the young who have pushed for change. In 2015, traditional barriers of caste and class came down briefly as the city united to work on flood relief, led by millennials who used social media to coordinate rescue work.
In 2017, college students turned out in thousands to protest against the Supreme Court’s ban on jallikattu or bull-taming. The Marina Beach, with its seemingly endless sands, untiring waves and a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, is often the site of these protests.
While the government might be slow to react, millennials have found their icon in Greta Thunberg and have responded to her call for action. Kumar says whenever the Vetiver Collective used to hold protests or rallies before, the same set of people responded. “In the past year, with Greta Thunberg speaking out, we’ve had the highest turnout of people wanting to join our movement since I started working in 2009," she says. “At least 3,000 people came for our September climate march," she said. “But we need to go beyond carrying placards and find ways to hold the government accountable."
Chennai is no stranger to drought, extreme summer temperatures and flooding. Records of drought go as far back as the 19th century. However, the intensity and the frequency of these extreme events indicate that climate change is altering Chennai’s weather patterns.
Between 2004 and 2011, Chennai experienced eight consecutive years of excessive rainfall from the northeast monsoon, according to data from the India Meteorological Department. “This is the longest streak of excessive rains since weather recording began in 1870," says Y.E.A, Raj, retired deputy director-general for IMD Chennai. For three years since 2011, Chennai experienced drought, with 2013 recording a 33% deficiency of rain.
The year after the 2015 floods, Tamil Nadu saw its worst drought in 140 years. Chennai received 62% less than normal rain during the 2016 northeast monsoon, the main rain season for the state. 2017 and 2018 were also drought years with water scarcity reaching a peak during the summer of 2019. Soon after a drought season in 2018, Cyclone Gaja killed at least 45 people and went on to flatten agricultural fields in southern Tamil Nadu.
Despite this, most people seem to have moved on from the shock of the 2015 floods. At that time, 500 people died and 2.3 million homes were inundated. “Yes, 2015 was a wake-up call. We had a number of volunteers. Everyone wants to do something but they’re slow to come out of their comfort zone. We hit the snooze button very quickly, and that has been the case with every disaster," says Dilip Srinivasan, 30, who runs an apparel business. He is the moderator of a Facebook group, The New Face of Society, which started as a platform to coordinate volunteer work during the 2015 floods. It has over 60,000 members.
Since the floods, the spirit of volunteering has grown, he says, adding that Chennai has become a hub for volunteerism. “I used to use a two-wheeler. Now I’ve challenged myself to use public transport for commuting," he says.
The threat of sea-level rise is the easiest trigger point for an average Chennaiite. “The fear of air pollution doesn’t work here as it hasn’t hit us as badly as it has landlocked cities like Delhi," says Miruthula Padmanabhan, 21, who studies fashion and is a member of the Chennai chapter of Extinction Rebellion (XR). As the name suggests, XR is known globally as a group that uses non-violent civil disobedience to pressure governments to reduce emissions and act against climate change. The Chennai chapter has about 130 members, all aged between 21 and 35.
Fridays For Future, a global movement inspired by Thunberg, has about 300 members in Chennai. “When we talk about a two-degree rise in global temperatures, no one cares. But when we talk about sea-level rise, everyone takes note. This is not to say that there is no inertia when it comes to people taking climate change seriously," Padmanabhan says.
James Lovelock, a renowned environmental thinker and an independent scientist, once said humans were “too stupid" to do anything about climate change. “I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle as complex a situation as climate change," Lovelock said in an interview nearly a decade ago. “The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful."
The millenials of Chennai might just prove him wrong.
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