Urban drive Environment

Fishing in troubled waters

A 2017 shot of the Cooum river   | Photo Credit: M_VEDHAN

Did you know that Chennai is home to one of India’s last remaining natural marshlands? The Pallikaranai wetland was once spread across 6,000 hectares, with several rivers and lakes draining into it. Of these lakes, one is the 100 acre Sembakkam Lake and efforts to rejuvenate it have been on for the last couple of years. Late last month, the announcement that an IT company would join hands with a global pumping solutions provider to revive the lake turned our attention back to the pitiable state of urban water bodies.

Around the same time, the construction of tenements by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) on a lake in Pammal was put on hold after the local people protested. TNSCB has also been allegedly providing illegal power connections to encroachers, which is obviously leading to an increase in squatters on the city’s lake beds. Encroachments and illegal constructions in such zones lead to flooding almost every monsoon. And despite the disaster of the 2015 floods, officials continue to turn a blind eye to the root cause.

In the last 50 years, the Pallikaranai wetland has been reduced to a shocking 600 hectares, that is, literally a tenth of its original size. Poor urban planning, rampant encroachment by developers, and large-scale polluting has turned the ecologically-rich zone into an eyesore over the years. It isn’t surprising that in the devastation of 2015, the Pallikaranai-Velachery stretch was among the worst-hit areas in the city. After the floods, various environmental reports showed that this was the state of many water bodies in the city. Lakes like Villivakkam and Ambattur have shrunk more than 80% over the last five decades — and it is all due to the indiscriminate destruction of water bodies carried out in the name of development, which translates into rampant construction.

Water bodies are declining rapidly in number across the country. Bengaluru had 262 lakes in the 1960s; now only 10 hold water, according to a report in Down To Earth. Ahmedabad had at least 137 lakes listed in 2001; construction work has started on 65 of them. Hyderabad has, over the last 12 years, lost 3,245 hectares of its wetlands.

While there is no doubt that partnerships — as in the case of the Sembakkam Lake project — are one way out for our lakes, where does this leave the government’s accountability? While ‘public-private partnerships’ can step in to save the day, at least in the case of Pallikaranai there is definite evidence of how local authorities are behind the gradual decline of the wetland. Why then are they not held accountable for their actions or made to pay for the revival of water bodies? Various responsible citizens and environmental groups are working tirelessly to restore the city’s urban bodies, depending heavily on private donations, only to have more lakes and marshes taken over illegally by developers while local authorities look on. Who will bring them to book?

Last year, the government allocated ₹23.7 billion and this year, ₹13.7 billion for restoring and cleaning of water bodies in Tamil Nadu, states a report in Mongabay India. ‘The government expressed its concern over the amount of raw sewage flowing through the river and allocated this amount mainly to clean the drains which empty into the river. However, the enormity of the problem is often difficult to comprehend.’ Officials ‘expressing concern’ over something that is not only in their control but something they actively oversee even today is hard to swallow.

Despite the bleak scenario, there is always a glimmer of hope. Reports are emerging of the Cooum restoration project, where experts say that signs of recovery can be seen as the water spread is increasing. This was made possible by bringing back lost plant species and coastal vegetation. In February this year, the State government also announced taking up the eco-restoration of Buckingham Canal and its drains as well as the drains of the Cooum and Adyar rivers at a total cost of ₹5,439.76 crore. The budget looks good. Here’s hoping the restored water bodies are not once again sacrificed by local bodies to developers.

A fortnightly column on environmental sustainability and urban issues


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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 10:01:35 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/on-the-pitiable-state-of-chennais-urban-water-bodies-and-government-inaction/article32515142.ece

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