Floods in Chennai a wake up call for climate change

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On November 30, nearly 150 world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss the global impact of climate change and the responsibility that emerging nations like India and China have to help slow or reverse it. Nearly two weeks later, representatives of 196 nations reached a historic agreement to limit the rise in worldwide temperatures by reducing and ultimately eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

What went largely unnoticed during that time was that just two days into the talks, on December 2, the city of Chennai, India — named one of the “hottest cities of 2015” by the BBC and one of the “52 places to go in 2014” by The New York Times — went underwater. A rainfall of epic proportions triggered the region’s worst flood in over 100 years, drowning a city of 4.8 million.

Three hundred people died, but they weren’t killed by ISIS and they weren’t the victims of a mass shooting. The headlines were buried along with the victims.

November was the rainiest month in Chennai’s history, so the land was saturated when the skies burst, pounding the city with 11 inches of rain, 34 times the daily average. Scientists say an El Nino of unprecedented strength dramatically raised temperatures in the Indian Ocean and was the cause of all the rain.

Millions were left without food and clean water and some of India’s largest industries were devastated — all while the leaders of the world were talking about climate change in Paris.

The countries that negotiated the deal now have a responsibility not only to talk about stemming climate change, but to help countries recover from the devastation it has already caused and will continue to cause.

They want India to step up. But who is stepping up for India?

As the waters recede in Chennai, the metropolitan area — the 36th largest in the world — risks epidemics of malaria, cholera, hepatitis and skin infections. And to complicate matters, Chennai hosts one of the largest artistic festivals in the world every December.

Millions of people from all over the world come to the city for a full month of cultural performances. They could be visiting a cesspool of diseases and bringing them back home. If an epidemic breaks out in Chennai over the next 30 days, it could easily become a pandemic.

If this is not a wake-up call to the world, then what is?

The Chennai disaster is being called a “perfect storm,” a shining example of what can happen when climate change meets poor urban planning.

Chennai allowed development near its waterways to go unchecked for decades, dooming the city when it confronted a 100-year storm, just as New Orleans failed to meet the challenge of Hurricane Katrina.

But everyone knows about Katrina. Chennai, on the other hand, has barely hit the global radar screen. The worst flooding in the world this year, the economic loss from which is expected to amount to $3 billion, has received remarkable inattention.

The Prime Minister has visited the city and declared it a major disaster area, and the Indian government has provided major funding, but you’d never know it here in the United States. You have to search very hard on the Indian Embassy’s website to find so much as a clue that something happened in Chennai. There’s nothing on the Embassy’s Facebook page, either, and the Indian ambassador hasn’t said a word. That’s astonishing. It’s inexcusable when help is needed.

Chennai has always been the cultural capital of India, and hundreds, if not thousands, of artists who live there have dedicated themselves to preserving and advancing the nation’s cultural heritage.

Many of them had to be airlifted from their homes when over 12 feet of water came in. Hundreds of musicians and talented artists lost their homes, their instruments, their paintings, their sculptures. Some lost their lives.

But Chennai is proving resilient — not because of assistance from other countries or international charitable organizations, but because of the spirit and character of the community itself. It is creative, determined and passionate. Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The people of Chennai have come together to help each other.

In the midst of global calamities where people are truly suffering, Chennai’s resilience demonstrates the power of the human spirit.

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