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Vol. XXX No. No. 16, December 16-31, 2020

ISWD project hits stormy waters in ECR

by Our Special Correspondent

Concrete drain under construction with stagnant rainwater.

Residents of ECR are protesting the building of storm water drains in their neighbourhoods, fearing that the move will do more harm than good. The storm water drains under contention come under the scope of the Rs. 4,034 crore Integrated Storm Water Drain (ISWD) project which aims at building adequate drainage facilities in extended areas comprising the city’s four river basins – Adyar and Cooum, Kovalam and Kosasthalaiyar. The Kovalam portion of the ISWD project is being funded by the German development bank KfW at a cost of Rs. 300 crores and it is this module that has run into trouble with some of ECR’s residents.

A press release issued by the COASWD (Coalition Against Storm Water Drains) asserts that the area does not need storm water drains since the soil acts as a ‘natural drain’, pointing out that most neighbourhoods remained safe from water-logging during the Chennai floods of 2015 as well as the recent Cyclone Nivar. Residents are concerned that the proposed storm water drains will instead harm the water table by diverting water from natural percolation into concrete drains that lead to the sea. Since the area does not have sewerage systems, the proposed storm water drains run the risk of discharging polluted water into the beaches.

The COASWD points out that such diversion will also hurt the coastal ecosystem in the neighbourhood, which includes areas like Kovalam and Muttukadu, designated as Important Coastal & Marine Biodiversity Areas by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. The geography’s shore and inter-tidal ecosystem nurtures a variety of plant and animal life, including the Olive Ridley turtles which famously come to these beaches to lay their eggs during the nesting season. With outfall diverted towards the sea, it is feared that the storm water drains would rob the turtles of a safe space to nest, since the embryos would be cut off from oxygen if the sands are too wet. The project is also expected to harm local plants such as the Ipomaea, the Spineifex and the Ravanan Misa, which prevent beach erosion in the area. The claim is that the work has commenced without an Environment Impact Assessment approval, Coastal Regulation Zone clearance or public consultation.

A statement issued by the Superintending Engineer of the Storm Water Drain department of the GCC, however, reiterates that water stagnation is a problem in the area due to “urbanisation”, claiming that the authorities have had to use pumping motors to bale out water as well as cut kutcha drains to divert rainwater into the sea. The statement also says that a consultant appointed by the German development bank KfW has carried out field surveys and tests to guide the project plan. The GCC maintains that due priority has been accorded to protect rainwater harvesting efforts – the plan is to import rain water harvesting blocks from Germany, which will be installed at 20 places, so that only “the remaining runoff water which is left after harvesting will drain to sea without obstructing the routine life of general public” (sic). The statement also refers to the storm water drains constructed in the Adyar and Cooum basins as part of the ISWD project, which are claimed to have greatly reduced water stagnation in the areas.

According to the COASWD, experts agree with their evaluation that storm water drains are not needed for their neighbourhoods in ECR. It is felt that low-lying areas would be better served with natural remedies such as recharge wells, which help the rainwater percolate to the water table. In their view, Sustainable Drainage Systems (SUDs) are a better alternative to concrete storm water drains – SUDs not only take into account the quantity of water that needs to be managed but also keeps an eye on water quality and biodiversity. Countering GCC’s defense of the project as a long-term solution against climate change, the coalition maintains that storm water drains are typically planned to meet short-term needs and therefore cannot be a sustainable solution in the long run. The group underlines that the project is a violation of the law under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife Protection Act, which extends absolute protection to sea-turtles. COASWD refers to a project in the past as a precedent to follow – the World Bank had reportedly funded the planting of casuarina trees on the shores around Chennai after the 2004 tsunami, but dropped the project on learning of its danger to animal species on the shore. The community’s pleas were put forth to the National Green Tribunal, which has appointed a committee to review the need for storm water drains in the area. According to reports, the NGT has directed the committee to present its findings on or before January 11, 2021, failing which an interim report is to be filed regarding prima facie violations if any.

According to COASWD, GCC has been proceeding with the project without waiting for the committee’s joint report. The group claims that residents have had to protest and stop work at more than twelve locations at Injambakkam, Palavakkam, Akkarai, Pannaiyur, Neelangarai and Uthandi.

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