Jul 4, 2024 6 min read

Thanks to the Chennai floods, I’m embracing minimalism

Thanks to the Chennai floods, I’m embracing minimalism
Flooding, which is increasing across the world, brings with it a huge problem of waste disposal. Photo: Jency Samuel

Crashing white waves and children’s delightful laughter. With these missing, Chennai's vibrant beach wears a different look with mounds of debris, showing the remnants of lives ravaged by floods. Jency Samuel explores the unseen aftermath – the waste that accumulates, a heavy burden long after the water retreats.

The gentle roar of the waves and the gleeful shouts of children as they get themselves drenched in the salty spray greet me even before I reach the water’s edge. I am at the Marina Beach in Chennai – the south Indian city where I live.

Despite it being a working day, there are scores of families relaxing, children playing tag and cricket and kabaddi on the sands. More importantly, I see only white waves breaking at the shore. A far cry from my last visit when the children’s laughter was missing. Broken sofas, branches of trees, mattresses, books and helmets littered the water’s edge – thanks to the intense rains that resulted in flooding.

The Marina Beach in Chennai normally wears a clean look. Photo: Jency Samuel

A post-flood visit to the beach

You see, I was here in the same stretch of the Marina a few months ago (December of 2023 to be exact), lost in thought, wondering how to clean the house.

It had been four days since my house got flooded after the heavy rains in December, caused by Cyclone Michaung. I decided to visit the beach after dropping my son at the airport. There was no point going back home since electricity supply had not been restored yet.

Cyclone Michaung had uprooted a huge roadside tree which fell on the overhead electric line. People were still at work cutting the tree when I left. Power would be restored only after clearing the tree. Why go back to a dark house when I could spend some time at the beach.

But all the litter along the water’s edge brought home a bitter truth. The post-flood or post-disaster problem of garbage.

This was the third time my house got flooded. The second time, the flood waters seemed to just tease me, coming in a bit and receding immediately. It was a relief since the water didn’t damage anything.

The floods and the garbage

The first time was in December 2015, when Chennai was literally marooned after intense rains that lasted for days. The flood waters ‘resided’ in my residence for four full days.

Since we had been caught unawares, we could not move anything to protect from the flood waters. Out went a whole lot of books, after the water receded.

After the 2015 floods, when I walked through the streets near Adyar – one of the rivers that flows through Chennai – it was obvious that the rain and the resultant flood had wreaked havoc.

There were broken televisions, mattresses, mangled bicycles, steel chests, utensils and whatnot – all piled on the streets. Workers and volunteers had come from other cities and towns; yet the post-flood garbage was too much to handle. Roughly 186,000 tonnes of garbage had to be cleaned after the floods. Compare this against Chennai city’s daily garbage generation, which was around 5,400 tonnes per day in 2015.

As of May 2024, Chennai city’s waste generation has increased to 7,600 tonnes per day. But in December 2023, after Cyclone Michaung, 10,400 tonnes of garbage was collected every day.

Disaster waste

Disaster waste is the waste generated by the impact of a disaster because of poor waste management. Such waste includes wood, steel, household furnishings and electrical poles, besides natural debris, such as mud and trees.

Though much of this waste can be recycled or composted, given the emergency situation after disasters such as cyclones and floods, the focus is generally on relief work and getting the citizens back to their normal routine as fast as possible. There is no time or resource to segregate. As a result, the waste ends up in dump yards that are already overflowing beyond their capacity.

With climate-induced intense rains and flash floods becoming common – as can be observed from the recent floods of Florida in the USA, Sikkim in India, Rio Grande in Brazil, besides the ones in Oman, Uruguay and Afghanistan. These inevitably result in disaster waste – there were stories of residents in these places salvaging what they could and dumping the rest in garbage piles.

While United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has issued guidelines for disaster waste management, some countries have also developed similar plans. Waste management may be the responsibility of the civic administration. But what about those who generate the waste?

When disaster strikes, people move to safety, with meagre, essential possessions, indicating the possibility of minimalism. Photo: Jency Samuel

Contemplating minimalism

With all these thoughts of disaster waste crowding my mind, I walked along the Marina Beach. Each item I saw reminded me of something similar I threw away after my house got flooded. A wooden dining table. A computer. Cane chairs. Books. Lots of them. Clothes. (There was no way of salvaging these books and clothes for donating or recycling, unfortunately) A longish list, if I include everything.

Well, I knew I could replace them. But the hardest item – though small – to lose was a ‘sorry’ card (the only one I ever received from him) that my fiancé had sent me after we had our first argument. The card also had a hand-drawn self-portrait of him sitting on the floor, sadly moping in a corner, with his knees drawn up to his chin. Though the loss of that card still brings up tears, I console myself that the memories are still there and the floods cannot snatch them away anytime.

During disasters, we see people moving to safety with just a few bags. The essentials. Showing that one can survive without the rest. While I am not prone to buying a lot of stuff, I realise that I do own a lot. I could certainly live with less, ideally embracing a minimalistic lifestyle. Even if I move to an upper floor to avoid floods, it’s not the same as owning less. For I know of people in upper floors who had to discard things damaged during cyclones because of hoardings and trees that fell on their houses.

Minimalism sounds ideal on paper. But I know it’s not easy. It’s a struggle to give away things that hold sentimental values. Even when I tell myself that it’s for a greater good, the brain doesn’t budge. But it does, when I remind myself that in a few years the knees and legs may not cooperate in cleaning and clearing!

I am starting with the furniture and books. I have stopped buying books except to give as gifts on special occasions – despite a teeny concern about my decision on the publishing industry, having been a part of it once. Well, what are libraries for!

Libraries, here I come. Minimalism, I embrace thee!

Jency Samuel
Jency Samuel
A civil engineer by profession, Jency, based at Chennai, India, doubles up as an independent journalist, writer, editor and translator.
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