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Vol. XXXII No. 8, August 1-15, 2022

This Business of the Cooum

-- by Shobha Menon

If any river could be angry, I guess it has to be the Cooum. A vibrant and integral part of the socio-economic and cultural life of Chennai city till the early twentieth century, the earliest recorded proposal to clean this natural watercourse (now, a chronic carrier of sullage and sewage) was way back in 1890. In spite of different political scenarios, officials and extensive funding, the Cooum restoration project – possibly the flagship of urban riverine system restoration efforts ever – continues to be of concern, 130 years later!

It is still not much different from that time in 1928, when V. H. Shipley wrote,

Of dirt and smell your sources wake..
And near the sea where one would think
Your water might be cleaner,
It forms a cesspit by the bridge,
Adjoining the Marina.
Oh viscid stream!
Oh smelling flood.
Oh green and beastly river!

Ancient documents from nearby temples spoke about ‘reaching salvation’ from a dip in the Cooum. Three ancient Shiva temples are located at the source of the river – Tiruvirkolam in Cooum village, at Ilambaiyankottur, and the Thiruverkadu Shiva temple. The Koyambedu temple is also in its banks.

The Cooum River originates in the Cooum village in Kadambathur union in Tiruvallur district, about 70 kilometres from Chennai, although starting its main course at Sattarai village, around 65 kilometres from Chennai. Flowing through Thiruverkadu, it enters the Chennai District at Arumbakkam after meandering for about 54 kilometres . It then passes through some of the oldest residential areas for another 18 kilometres such as Choolaimedu, Chetpet, Egmore and Chintadripet, where the river channel is about 30 metres (98 ft) wide. Close to Egmore, the river forks into two – the northern and the southern arms – both of which join again near the Napier bridge, forming the Island Grounds. The northern part of the Buckingham Canal joins the Cooum near the old Central Jail while the southern part of the same canal emerges from the river, just behind the University of Madras campus. The river finally joins the Bay of Bengal south of the Fort St George, just below the Napier Bridge.

India Water Portal, a water advocacy group, records that the downhill slide began from 1868 onwards ‘when dams built to create drinking water reservoirs for the city’s thirsty citizens, diverted supply from freshwater sources and crippled water flow into the Cooum. And as the city grew, urban sprawl, poor management by municipal authorities, and lack of civic sense added to river woes’.

Strident concerns

1. Waterfront development, beautification, and eco-restoration, along with high-end infrastructure may be exciting possibilities. But is slum eviction being looked at as a convenient and achievable first step ? According to a current estimate, over 18,000 families are in/ have completed process of relocation from the banks of the Cooum. How feasible ?

2. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) has been tasked with building sewage treatment plants, diverting sewage into these plants and laying interceptors. But isn’t this the same organization that was supposed to check sewage channels and illegal discharge of untreated sewage in the first place, and has evidently been very challenged?

Sewer lines laid over the river risk further pollution of the Cooum through possible leakages since it is known to carry acidic sewage. Will this not backfire and erode the pipes and the links?

3. The inordinate delay of effective implementation in spite of extensive funding in this area has also bothered the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that has raised many queries, even fines.

Current news

The Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT) plans include interceptors and diversion of sewage to improve the water quality, river channel improvement to enhance ecological flow of the river, development of parks and maintenance of pathways, river bank vegetation and mangrove plantations . Through their external project management consultants, they are to ensure activities are ‘executed by the departments accurately and in a timely manner’ and have ‘successfully relocated’ over 86 per cent of the families who were living along the river. Other restoration activities like river widening and desilting is to be carried out, and sewage treatment to happen in parallel.

While ‘80 per cent of encroachments’ along the river bank have been cleared, the CMWSSB is now focusing on stopping the flow of untreated sewage into it with three treatment plants set up at Langs Garden in Egmore, Nungambakkam and Chetpet. The Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) and Southern Railways have agreed to buy this treated water from Metro water.

While the GCC is expected to use it for watering the plants and trees on the roadsides, the Railways is to use this water for cleaning the coaches and related work.

However, unofficial estimates reveal ‘innumerable’ sewage outfalls are yet to be plugged. And officials blame a lack of coordination between departments – PWD, Metro Water, the City Corporation and the CRRT, with ‘each government department intent to carry out the project awarded to them and show their progress at least on paper’.

Academic inputs

Dr Martin Bunch, currently Professor at the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES), York University, worked on an adaptive ecosystem approach to the problem of the Cooum River and environs for his PhD research, way back in 2000. His GIS database and decision support system (DSS) inputs were a significant contribution to understanding of the Cooum system besides a forum for open debate and exchange removed from the restrictive institutional culture of government departments. “The late 90s was a very promising time. NGOs, government and academia looking at this socioecological system that needed different approaches led to new ideas and new conversations. An engineer from the PWD, Sahadevan, who was the champion in spearheading this complex situation, unfortunately died in an accident soon after. He had broached an interesting idea of flushing the river with tanks by the side of the river.

The complexity was due as much to human factors as to physical characteristics of the system. Fragmentation of jurisdiction and perspective between departments means that no one worked together on a problem that was simpler in the past. And got more overwhelming with time!

When people bribe and do the wrong thing and feel they are ‘smart’, it is worse! Even well meaning people seem to be stuck in a system that doesn’t let them do the right thing, at least easily. Participants initially pointed to the slums as the problem, but soon felt otherwise. Somewhere along the way, the complexity of the situation makes it resilient to change!”

Prof. V Madha Suresh, Indian Council of Social Science Research –Senior Fellow, Centre for Environmental Sciences, University of Madras, says, “A conscientious, united political will is important to resolve this deep rooted concern. We need a single point authority, like a Cooum Development Authority, that takes overall charge of the concern. Like the forum that restored the Chilka Lake. Designated administrative staff need to sincerely focus on the issue every day! At this point, we see lot of action only during disasters and CRRT has too many things in the pipeline.

Inputs from academics and researchers are not taken seriously. With enormous amount of funding into such programs, it is crucial that citizens exert pressure on governments and politicians. In the Tamraparni issue, for instance, while government tenders were doing some disorganised effort, a couple of experts got together students, approached industries for minimal funding for students refreshments, bull dozers , tractors etc and within 5 months the project was completed effectively with the Collector’s help. It has been a very successful project and the once dry lands are now forested wonderfully.”

The late DMK leader M. Karunanidhi once said, that the happiest day for him would be when children could play and bathe in a clean Cooum. Can we not purge this lifeline of the toxic mixtures resulting from ignorance, poor infrastructure, and inadequate public services, and utilise her as a unique platform to create public awareness and action on environmental, water and sanitation issues? Of the 1.12 crore citizens or more of Chennai at this point in time (as per 2021 population records), how many feel the need and are ready to lend a hand toward proactively protecting this vital riverine ecosystem, is the point.

Snippets from media reports from the last few decades…

September 1967, Chief Minister Annadurai inaugurated the Cooum Improvement Scheme at a cost of Rs. 19 million, M.K. Karunanidhi was then Public Works Minister.

February 1973, former Chief Minister M.K. Karunanidhi, inaugurated a pleasure boat service, with seven boat jetties and rowing boats, powered boats and paddle boats, “all safe and sleek”. But, the experiment did not take off.

By the late 1970s itself, the Cooum had only 21 species of fish from the 49 species of the 1950. Highly toxic pollutants ensure no fish species currently.

Several studies, such as that by Seven Trent Consultancy in 1991 and Mott Macdonald that came up with projects worth Rs.34.8 crore in 1994, were undertaken to improve the waterway.

Soon after, a comprehensive Chennai City River Conservation project was started at a cost of Rs.1,200 crore. Funded substantially by the Central Government in 2001, it sought to strengthen the sewerage network and plug sewage outfalls.

May 2006, for eco-restoration of the Cooum, the Chennai River Authority, is formed.

The eco-restoration of the Cooum and its tributaries took shape once again in 2008 with the formation of Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust ( from the Adyar Poonga Trust founded in 2006). The ambitious project targeted multi-pronged approach and drew up a package of solutions along with World Bank ,at a projected cost Rs.2,300 crore.

2010, a Rs 1,200 crore MoU with Singapore Cooperation ­Enterprise (SEC), a Singapore agency for restoration modelled on the Singapore River Restoration Project. At this point, more than 130 sewage outfalls were in the river, mostly between Aminjikarai and Nungambakkam. In areas like Maduravoyal, more than 7 tonnes of municipal waste were dumped every day!

During the 2014-15 state budget, the Cooum River Restoration Project was announced with a total cost of Rs. 3,833.62 crore. Rs. 2,077.29 crore of this was allocated for the relocation of affected families to the fringes of the city into resettlement colonies. As per the Executive Summary of the “Cooum River Eco-Restoration Plan” dated November 2014, the total number of families to be affected is 14,500 families but the actual number is likely to be much higher than this.

2018, the removal of 21,665 tons of waste from the river – with trash boom barriers, robotic excavators, amphibious machines and so on and so forth – and the Water Resources Department (WRD) desilted and widened nearly 15 km of the waterway in the city. Work also began on a 1.5-km nature trail as part of a $250 thousand-dollar eco-restoration project, between the College Road bridge in Nungambakkam and the Munroe bridge in Chetput, modelled on the San Antonio River Walk in the United States.

July 2021, the CMWSSB includes 10 Interception & Diversion (I&D) systems along the river and three or four modular Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) at a cost of Rs 126.2 million.

Tests of Cooum water samples have revealed almost zero dissolved oxygen and substantial presence of faecal coliform bacteria, besides heavy metals such as lead, zinc , cadmium and pesticides like endosulphan and lindane. One study showed that it is 80 percent more polluted than treated sewer!

More plans floated over the last decades, from media reports…

‘A visitor centre near the mouth of the river on the Marina Beach, similar to the Marina Barrage Visitor Centre in Singapore and San Antonio Visitor Center in the United States, as part of an initiative to create awareness of the need for clean waterways’.

In 2011, the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association planned to build ‘a Marina at the mouth of the Cooum along the southern bank, where yachts and pleasure boats could dock’. The Rs. 300-million project estimate, by 2013 had increased to Rs. 450 million.

‘A nature trail along the river for which a draft ecological plan has been prepared by the Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure and Financial Services Limited (TNUIFSL). The project is planned from College Road bridge to Chetpet bridge by the Chennai River Restoration Trust. on an “elevated boardwalk” model with “uncompressed natural wood” and “fibre reinforced plastic”. The entry and exit would be on College Road near the DPI complex. Apart from the parking facilities on the DPI premises, a stretch along the road between the entry point and the College Road Bridge would be demarcated for additional parking. Five points located at 200-metre (660 ft) intervals along the trail have been selected for erecting break-out areas including one for a canopy walk. The facility has been planned without electrical fittings and has been designed as a “day trail”’.

‘Key aspects of the Cooum river eco-restoration plan includes 11 maintenance ways of 9.6 km, 22 walkways of 24 km, and 17 cycle tracks of 19 km, in addition to 24 parks and riverfront vegetation. The total budget for the eco-restoration is Rs. 19,340 million’.

‘Chennai Metro rails are to be built about 30 metres (98 ft) under the bed of the river. Custom-made tunnel boring machines costing Rs. 600 million each have been imported from Germany for the purpose’.

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