Taking those first steps outside of campus, you notice the things that are most overwhelming first. For instance, the streets feel claustrophobic, packed hip to hip. Everyone stacks on top of one another. You can clearly see the crowded chaos, but its more than just a visual confrontation. You can hear the crowded streets through the symphony of horns coming from the cars and autos, and the hundreds of voices speaking over each other along the sidewalks. You smell the crowded streets through the stench of food, exhaust, and of course who could forget the aroma of fecal decomposition. On top of all this “chaos”, its 90 degrees outside, but with the weight of the humidity on your shoulders, it feels well above 100. Walking down the street I began to think to myself, How could anyone live in this constant pandemonium? Five minutes later, storm clouds cover the sky. You admire for just a minute the overwhelming cooler temperature. That is, until the sky opens and the rain starts to pour.
Although I knew I stood in a totally new world, the heat, the crowd, the humidity, and more interestingly the rain reminded me of home. It reminded me of Houston.
This past week at MCC, part of our academic discussion has focused around the urbanization of Chennai and its constant struggle to reduce/eliminate flooding and its consequential dangers during the downpours of monsoon season. Walking through the streets of West Tambaram after the rains, I found myself looking at the overflowing ditches and pools of water while observing the congested nature of the city, and thinking of Houston and the destruction from Hurricane Harvey that has caused so much trouble. In all, I found myself asking the same question: Why do cities this populated flood? Shouldn’t they have the infrastructure to prevent it? That’s when I noticed that maybe Houston and Chennai both have problems. Who would think that Houston, a modern era city built on advanced western industry and technology all the way across the ocean had exactly the same issues as a third world city across the globe, centuries old. Surprisingly, these cities are actually not that different. Let’s take a look….
Houston and Chennai both sit on the coast. Chennai resides directly adjacent to the Bay of Bengal in southeast India, and Houston sits just an hour from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Both cities reside in tropical climates too. The high summer temperatures in combination with the overwhelmingly heavy levels of precipitation and humidity create an environment very prone for terrestrial downpours and storms in both cities. Also, neither city is very elevated, so the flat even terrain of their geographic location makes it easy for rain water to pool and collect rather than run off into the ocean.
Houston and Chennai have both experienced growth at an exceptionally fast rate. In the past 25 years, Houston has added one million to their already enormous population, and very similarly Chennai has a general population of 10 million with an increase of half a million people in just two years (between 2015 and 2017) (Venkatachalam, 2017). Houston has experienced growth for many reasons including its status as the hub of the oil and gas industry in the United States. Chennai, on the other hand, has grown largely due to an increase in rural population migration into more urban settings, since droughts have failed to provide enough water for the adequate growth of crops (Venkatachalam, 2017).
Loss of Open Land
As a consequence of their rapid expansion, both Houston and Chennai have compromised open land necessary for irrigation and flood prevention by building more residential settlements and urban infrastructure to accommodate their masses. In the last 25 years, the number of open wetland systems available for water absorption in Houston has decreased by 50%. Likewise in Chennai, population growth has lead to encroachment and waste dumping into wetlands, and as a result, the destruction of 3,680 bodies of water and their ecosystems (Venkatachalam, 2017).
In cities so big, one might assume that infrastructure must be organized enough to be prepared to house the large populations that they hold. Contrary to my initial assumption actually, I discovered that Houston and Chennai have avoided taking proper and necessary measures in their infrastructure to provide safe and effective methods of flood control. In a report on Hurricane Harvey published on August 27th, one NBC writer noted that Houston’s residents believe ‘developers skimp on flood prevention systems’ when developing new residential areas throughout the city. Scarily enough, Houston has avoided developing flood prevention systems for so long that their most recent update in flood infrastructure was dated all the way back to 1940. Likewise, in Chennai something similar has occurred as well. With the recent influx in rural migration, Chennai as a city has had close to 150,000 illegal construction projects occurring on natural bodies of water. This lack of legal review and failure to prevent encroachment compromises the safety of the individuals in the city.
Overall, I have discovered that above and beyond the differences between the advancement of a western world and the struggles of a third world country, ignorance has remained consistent across both destinations. This ignorance is lethal. Without proper systems in place to take care of terrestrial downpours in areas that are extremely susceptible to them, lives continue to be lost in a helpless manner. It has been hard to watch Houston struggle all the way across the world, so when I walk the streets of Chennai and I see the damage they have set themselves up for, I can’t help but empathize with the city.