A Mistake Chennai Cannot Afford to Repeat

Planning Dated:  Feb. 12, 2016
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Underground Water Level in Chennai

From 650 to 300, the decrease of water bodies in the city should be a major concern

Not too long ago, Chennai was known for its diverse ecology and was home to as many as 300 lakes. The undulating topography with underlined rock formations offered enormous scope and opportunity in developing several human-made small water reservoirs in and around Chennai.

Unregulated increase in urbanisation has exerted tremendous pressure on Chennai's ecology. A city once known for being a safe haven for a wide variety of birds, reptiles and marine life forms now holds the distinction of being the country's air pollution capital.

About two decades ago, a research project by the Centre for Environmental and Water Resource Engineering, IIT Madras estimated that about 650 water bodies existed in the Chennai region. More than half of them were located south of River Adyar. At present, as the second Master Plan for Chennai indicates, only a fraction of them exists. Most of the water bodies within the city have vanished and only a few remain in the immediate periphery.

These once glorious water bodies now cease to exist even in small manifestations of the original. They are now survived only by the names they were once known by. 'Tank Bund Road' and 'New Tank Street' are the only traces of the existence of the Nungambakkam lake that in turn fed the Long tank of Mylapore. These lakes began to decline as the areas of Kodambakkam, Mahalingapuram started to develop, becoming small stagnant pools during the monsoons and eventually disappearing with time. 

The current map of Chennai shows no sign of the ‘’Long Tank’’ which was once a striking feature of the geography of Madras. It formed an important border for the city in the olden days and ran through prime areas like Nungambakkam, Chetpet, Teynampet and Saidapet. The long tank, which later came to be known as Mambalam Tank after its shrinking, was eventually filled in. The only trace of it found today is the Lake View Road in that area. With the development of West Mambalam, Pondy Bazaar and other parts of T.Nagar over the tank, all signs of the very existence of an important lake have disappeared. Subsequently, these areas face extreme issues of water logging during the monsoons.

The Allikulam market popularly known as Moore market derives its name from the 11 lakes that once existed behind the Ripon Building. Moore Market today exists in the area of Periyamedu which happens to translate into ‘’Big mound’’. The lakes which were filled in order to allow the development looked like a huge heap of earth or rather ‘’periya medu’’ and hence was later identified by the people in that manner. This area today holds a meaning very different from anything relating to the lakes that once existed. Although the destruction of lakes started with the British, the trend has continued over the years and more and more lakes have disappeared from the layout of the city.

As many as 474 wetlands have been identified in greater Chennai. According to a study by IIT-Madras and Dhan Foundation done in 2009, the linear stretch between Madhya Kailash and Mammallapuram has 109 water bodies in 44 villages. Despite the northern region of the station having thousands of water bodies and rainfall above the national average the possibility of drought and water shortage is always looming. The state government, instead of focusing on reviving lakes, has been insistent on building expensive, inefficient and environmentally disastrous desalination plants.

The consequence of this rapid loss of water bodies is reduction in the extent of collective water harvesting, but also severely impacted flood management within the city. The principal cause of local flooding in many areas is the mismanagement of water bodies and impairment of linking canals.

For instance, the Virugambakkam drain, which was 6.5 km long and drained into the Nungambakkam tank, is now present only for an of extent of 4.5 km. The remaining two km stretch of the drain is missing. Nungambakkam tank was filled and built. This along with the loss of Koyambedu drain has resulted in the periodic flooding of Koyambedu and Virugambakkam areas.

This phenomenon is now repeating in the suburbs. The surplus channels connecting various water bodies in western suburbs such as Ambattur and Korattur have been encroached upon. The water body in Mogappair has almost disappeared. Lake beds often serve as make shift dumping yards and cesspool resulting in inundation of neighbouring localities.

Experts in the field caution that loss of water bodies and channels not only induced flood but also increased saltwater intrusion. As a thumb rule every one metre of water-head in a water body can push sea water laterally by 40 meters. The water bodies thus function like a protective ring. If it weren't for the presence of Buckingham Canal, saltwater would have intruded further west and affected more residential areas. Restoration and proper maintenance of the tanks are critical to Chennai's future.

Arun Krishnamurthy, in an article titled 'My City, My Home' published in The Hindu states

States - Number of waterbodies in chennai
"Our rivers only carry water that we have used and not water that we can use. Our lakes are future libraries, bus terminuses and road projects but not water-holding habitats".

Perumbakkam lake was once a 100 acre fully filled fresh water lake and home to a range of fishes and amphibians. Ecologically, this lake played an instrumental role in balancing the local environment by regulating the surplus flood waters during monsoon periods, keeping lake surrounding cool, recharging of ground water sources, nurturing wetland ecosystem and providing a feeding and breeding ground for many local and migratory birds. Today however, the lake is surrounded by a multitude of small industrial and production units that regularly dump municipal waste in and around the lake. Adding to the insensitivity, local garbage as well as raw sewage is also let into the lake. The current state of the lake has no semblance to the earlier self. Currently standing at one-twentieth of its original size it is full of garbage and sewage and now, threatens the very existence of flora and fauna and the health of people living nearby.

Existing lakes continue to be taken over by land grabbers and developers for the sake of urban development. However the issues of soil stability in such areas raise serious questions about the kind of development and the safety of people in these areas. Slum dwellers also tend to take over the water sources by dumping solid waste which is not only a threat to their safety, but also contributes to the pollution of these waters in the city. Water scarcity has become a common complaint and comes off as quite an irony in a city that once had sprawling waters to boast of. The developers today try to attract prospective residents into apartments that face water bodies outside the city when once the prime areas and the heart of the city itself had multiple lakes.

“When we introduce Chennai to a visitor, we proudly present the Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mount Road, our electric trains and more. We give them a glimpse of our concrete structures, a taste of our filter coffee and most definitely an experience of our culture. This package, we assume, is a complete representation of Chennai. However, we conveniently ignore a critical segment of our city. A city, we call home, whose natural history we do not know, which is the real Chennai."  - Arun Krishnamurthy

This Article is part of Agam Sei Volume: 01 Issue: 12.

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