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Vol. XXVIII No. 2, May 1-15, 2018

Time to restore vanishing water bodies

by A Special Correspondent

Page 1 top image

Shrinking Porur Lake (above), thanks to all the buildings encroaching on its banks. Insert: a comparatively new embankment marking the present bounds of the lake. Below, a well-tended tank, the Kapaliswarar Temple’s, showing what can be done, and the neighbouring Chitrakulam tank made a garbage dump. (Pictures: R. Raja Pandian.)

Page 1 bottom imageTo long term Chennai residents, it is not new to learn that numerous water bodies of the city and suburbs have disappeared over the years. Unloading boatloads of vegetables and fruits on the Buckingham Canal at Thannithurai, the flowing Adyar which, in the 1940s, could be crossed only by boat at Kottur with a lone bus service from Mylapore tank to Guindy Engineering twice a day, the Aaraattha Kuttai that has become today’s Nageswara Rao Park in Alwarpet, the Lake area in Nungambakkam where Valluvar Kottam stands now, and the Medavakkam tank have all become memories of a bygone era.

The shrinkage of water bodies is here in statistical terms. It is estimated that the expanse of water bodies in and around the City contracted from 12.6 sq. km. in 1893 to 3.2 sq. km. in 2017. There were as many as 60 large water bodies at one time which have come down to just 28, most of which are small.

The depleted state of major lakes is disturbing, as what has been lost, perhaps forever, is immense. According to NGOs like Arappor Iyakkam and Care Earth Trust, our major lakes have suffered serious encroachment and abuse, depleting their holding capacity over the years. Villivakkam Lake was nearly 214 acres in 1972 and has been reduced to 20 acres. The irony is that government organisations themselves have been putting up constructions on the banks of the lake. Korattur fresh water lake is spread over 600 acres and experts believe it can contribute significantly to Chennai’s water requirement if it is recovered. The 8-acre Avadi lake, which is considered to have been at one time in “pristine condition”, is practically lost and recovery seems impossible as it has been extensively built upon. So has Porur Lake. These are a few examples and there are others in a similar state.

Lately, there is some concern over this depleting natural asset. NGOs like Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI), are involved in rejuvenating smaller ponds to sustain the ecological balance in Madhavaram, Sholinganallur and Mudichur. Commendable work is also being done in creating awareness and enlisting volunteers from among the public to serve as watchdogs against misuse. Volunteer teams have been desilting and clearing dumped rubbish to restore the water body’s natural capacity and to make the water cleaner.

That the Forest Department has recently taken over the Pallikaranai marshland and employed earthmovers to remove accumulated rubbish is another positive sign. This campaign is carried out in the face of over a thousand encroachers hindering eco-restoration by legal and other means. Chennai Corporation’s proposal to build a 26-km wall along the Adyar bank to prevent encroachment is promising. The public is anxiously looking forward to the speedy completion of these plans.

To avert the annual nightmare of man-made floods, action is also needed, on emergency footing, to remove plastic and garbage blockages of stormwater drains. In 2012, the Chennai Corporation began work on construction of 5,000 rainwater harvesting structures in storm water drains. We do not know the status of that project and whether they were completed.

Cities of the world celebrate waterways flowing through them, create parks and architectural splendours around the waterways with attractive civic amenities. Waterbodies, importantly, act as flood control devices to moderate the effects of sudden heavy rainfall. When natural storage capacity is depleted by human neglect or misuse, storm water run off happens, which is rainfall that has nowhere to collect. It falls on roads, driveways, parking lots, rooftops and other paved surfaces that do not allow water to soak into the ground, leaving underground aquifers un-charged. The dry sub-soil is quenched by incursion of saltwater from the sea, in coastal areas. Reversing saline contamination needs consecutive seasons of good rainfall which at times takes years to occur. Thus, water bodies serve the valuable function of water balancing and avoidance of saline incursion in coastal areas.

There are lessons from the “water-body experience”. Restoration of water bodies, revamping the stormwater drain system, modernising sewage water treatment and solid waste disposal system are projects that span over more than one Budget, more than one government term and more than one agency of the government. At the same time, these projects are too critical for the basic needs of the City to be subject to political changes and vagaries. Such projects supplying basic needs should, ideally, have the full capital cost sanctioned and committed right at the start and monies provided subsequently in each year’s Budget – even if governments change – according to that year’s estimated cash needs within their respective sanctioned sums. Thereby, the Budget would also have the occasion to report the physical progress of the projects while making provision for funds for them for each year.

Another lesson is that prevention is relatively easier and less expensive than cure. Re-possession and restoration by rearguard action is complicated – going through agitation, human rights, litigation, prolonged court proceedings, politicians/NGOs espousing intruders’ cause and so on. Strong vigilance and severe punishment for violation are necessary to save further loss of valuable natural resources.

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