Why poor planning leads to floods in Chennai and Houston

Nityanand Jayaraman writes: The recent floods in Houston and Mumbai, and the December 2015 floods in Chennai are previews of what a disaster could look like when climate change and ill-advised land-use change collide.

All three cities are economic powerhouses in their own right. All three have prioritised unbridled growth and urbanisation over caution and better sense. All have paid a heavy price for their choices.

None seems to have learnt any lessons beyond perhaps treating disastrous flooding as the new normal. This failure to learn may have more to do with who suffers and who gains from the choices made rather than an inability to learn.

To cope with increasing population – nearly two million extra residents added since 2000 – Houston has spread concrete over coastal prairie that used to absorb the rain, according to the Economist magazine. Media investigations reveal that since 2010, Harris Country has allowed more than 8,600 buildings to be constructed on a century-old floodplain.

In India, Chennai’s story is particularly telling about how governments beholden to an unhelpful growth logic actively make a bad situation worse. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Floodwaters in two Houston neighborhoods have been contaminated with bacteria and toxins that can make people sick, testing organized by The New York Times has found. Residents will need to take precautions to return safely to their homes, public health experts said.

It is not clear how far the toxic waters have spread. But Fire Chief Samuel Peña of Houston said over the weekend that there had been breaches at numerous waste treatment plants. The Environmental Protection Agency said on Monday that 40 of 1,219 such plants in the area were not working.

The results of The Times’s testing were troubling. Water flowing down Briarhills Parkway in the Houston Energy Corridor contained Escherichia coli, a measure of fecal contamination, at a level more than four times that considered safe.

In the Clayton Homes public housing development downtown, along the Buffalo Bayou, scientists found what they considered astonishingly high levels of E. coli in standing water in one family’s living room — levels 135 times those considered safe — as well as elevated levels of lead, arsenic and other heavy metals in sediment from the floodwaters in the kitchen. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports from Gustavia, St. Barthélemy: The pace is frantic. Residents with shovels clean the streets. Dump trucks laden with the stumps of storm-ravaged trees rumble back and forth along narrow streets. Construction crews clear downed telephone poles and debris from houses and businesses in a race to restore the lifeblood of this small Caribbean island — tourism.

Those who live on St. Barthélemy — working in its restaurants, building its homes, fishing its seas — know there is nothing without it. And Hurricane Irma, which plowed through this part of the Caribbean, killing more than two dozen people and seriously damaging or destroying the majority of structures on some islands, also struck a devastating blow to the industry so many rely on.

“We don’t have a choice,” said Jordan Laplace, a fisherman whose family has lived on the island for generations. “Tourism is the only way to live. We don’t have anything else.”

The storm leveled hotels, eroded beaches and turned marinas into graveyards for scuttled yachts. Islands that were hit are still trying to assess the hurricane’s economic impact, wondering how and even if they will be able to restore the islands to the former magnets they were before Irma. [Continue reading…]

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