The mired marsh

With World Environment Day just behind us, a look at Chennai’s Pallikaranai wetland, a haven for migratory birds, being choked by pollution and neglect.

June 08, 2013 06:10 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 11:12 am IST

With policies in place to crackdown on poaching, encroachment and illegal waste disposal, there is yet hope for Pallikaranai. Photo: Shaju John

With policies in place to crackdown on poaching, encroachment and illegal waste disposal, there is yet hope for Pallikaranai. Photo: Shaju John

In cities across the world, un-segregated garbage ends up polluting water bodies and groundwater, and ruining the lives of those who work and live in the vicinity of dump yards. The growing metropolis of Chennai presents an alarming case in point.

One-third of this south Indian city’s garbage — nearly 2,600 tonnes a day — ends up dumped in the rich freshwater and brackish water ecosystem of the Pallikaranai marshlands. Home to 126 bird species, including migratory ones such as grey pelicans, 141 plant species, 46 freshwater species, 15 species of marine fish, the endangered Russell’s viper, 20 species of butterflies and eight mammals, the marsh is a treasure trove of biodiversity.

Reduced from its original water spread of more than 6,000 hectares three decades ago to one-tenth its size, the beleaguered marshland still continues to play an important role in maintaining the ecological balance of the region. As one of the most important rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge systems, Pallikaranai plays the role of a shock absorber — storing floodwater during the monsoons and releasing it gradually — thus mitigating the economic distress that floods could cause in urban settings.

Unfortunately, over the years, the city’s municipal authorities have seen the water body as the place of choice for receiving the city’s garbage, construction debris and sewage. Garbage is choking this crucial wetland.

Across the developing world, the trend is devastatingly similar. Growing metropolises bursting at their seams; thousands of tonnes of mixed trash; illegal dump yards in low-lying areas and abutting low-income communities; an informal economy of rag pickers, mostly children, scratching out a living under the most inhospitable circumstances; poisoned air, polluted water; poisons pervading all life forms in the vicinity.

This damage is very visible, and saddening. As a photographer, setting this damage against the still surviving natural beauty offers a useful opportunity to make a visual case to end our addiction to unsustainable material and lifestyles.

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