With coordinated efforts of government agencies and community participation, it may be possible to restore the Cooum, reports K. Lakshmi

For many people living along the banks of the Cooum, windows are of no use as they are seldom opened. Having a waterway flowing in one's backyard could be an idyllic situation elsewhere, but for people in Chennai it has only meant a problem. B. Damodaran, a resident of Choolaimedu, said: “I don't remember the last time when I kept the windows open. The stench is unbearable. Many of us in the area dread leaving doors open for long hours because the stagnant river is a potential breeding ground for mosquitoes.”

Many residents like 80-year-old Veeramma, who live close to the river, recalled that the waterway got polluted only in the mid-1980s. “I moved here as a child. At that time, the river did not have a defined bank and there was plenty of greenery. I used to fetch water from the river. But in the last 30 years, it has turned into a sewage carrier,” she says. The severity of the pollution has increased in the past decade and occasional cleaning of the floating garbage has not solved the problem.

Several families residing along the river, factor in packaged drinking water and mosquito repellents in their monthly budget. R. Jayapal of Singarayar Street, Mehta Nagar, said: “Many people find it convenient to dump garbage or connect their sewage lines directly into the Cooum as it lacks a preventive wall. We have stopped using the bore-well water since it is murky and saline.”

“Every time, the government announces schemes to clean the river, my hopes rise. But, I am still waiting for the projects to be implemented and not just remain on paper,” he said.

The State government has announced a slew of projects in this year's budget to plug sewage outfalls in city waterways and revamp the Chennai River Restoration Trust to monitor and prevent the river from degradation. This has sparked fresh hopes among the residents.

However, environmentalists feel that formulation of ambitious projects alone would not help clean the river. A sustained effort and co-ordination between various government agencies is the need of the hour. People with expertise, who have handled similar projects in others parts of India, must be involved in designing and implementing the project, they said. A. Navaneetha Gopalakrishnan, Director of Environmental Studies, Anna University, said rapid urbanisation in the city has paved way for release of sewage into the river. “The river largely carries domestic sewage and there would be significant improvement in the water quality if such outfalls are blocked. A separate body must be formed to monitor and prevent illegal discharge of sewage,” he said.

Experts also reiterated that strengthening of the sewage collection and treatment systems in the city were significant to achieve the ambitious goal of a clean river in the next few years. It was imperative to expand the ambit of sewerage network to the fast developing areas in the fringes such as Thiruverkadu and Vanagaram to arrest pollution of the river, they felt. A comprehensive solid waste management plan for the local bodies that do not have dumping yards of their own is also essential to save the waterway from further abuse.

Another major issue is the resettlement of people who have encroached upon the bank and the river. The government must ensure that tenements are allotted with adequate facilities and protect the banks from further encroachments, they said.

V. Sundar, professor of Department of Ocean Engineering, IIT Madras, said that postponing the project further would only aggravate the problem given the population density. Formation of sand bar due to silting near the river mouth was a major problem and the groynes must be rehabilitated to control the movement of seawater into the river. Dredging the river bed up to three km was essential to facilitate tidal action.

While P.K. Suresh, expert in coastal engineering suggested that dredging must be done for a depth of nearly two metre to allow flushing of the river, N. Anuthaman, professor in Centre for Water Resources, Anna University, said that green cover must be provided in the areas with clayey layer to improve ground water quality.

Sources at CRRT said a study with the World Bank was done and a comprehensive package of solutions was drawn two years ago. With co-ordinated efforts of the government agencies and community participation, it should be possible to restore the Cooum in the next few years.