Jolted out of complacency after the devastating 2015 floods in Chennai, city authorities have begun to restore water bodies in the coastal metropolis. But experts and activists say that there’s a long way to go
Whenever P. Hemamalini goes to her house in West Mambalam in the southern metropolis of Chennai, she goes past Lake View Road. Unfortunately there is neither a view nor a lake along the road. “It is just a congested road packed with buildings,” she said.
It was during the 2015 floods in the city that she realised the meaning of the road’s name she was living on. “The entire neighbourhood was flooded, with the water coming to at least 5-6 ft on the road. It was then I realised that I was living in a low-lying area and it was once a lake,” she told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “For two weeks in December 2015, my family and I had to live elsewhere.”
The low-lying area gets inundated easily and is known for its mosquito menace. “Mosquitoes were such a big problem that we had a local cricket team called Mambalam Mosquitos that was established in the 1940s,” said M.V. Sridhar, an old-time resident of Chennai.
While across the city, Lake View roads and Eri Karai roads (roads along the shore of a water body) are common in areas like Nungambakkam, Velachery and other low-lying areas, the actual water bodies are missing. As Chennai loses its water bodies to encroachment as well pollution from sewage and garbage, its residents are paying a price for it.
It took rainfall of epic proportions in 2015 for Chennai’s city planners to move out of their inertia and come up with a comprehensive plan to mitigate flooding caused by excessive rains, one of which is to save existing lakes. In December 2015, several rain gauges in and around Chennai recorded close to 500 mm of rain in a 24-hour period — more than the annual average of at least 31 countries.
With clogged drains and encroached water bodies, the water had nowhere to go but into people’s homes. Some 400 persons died, and 1.8 million people were displaced. The metropolis faced an economic loss of USD 7 billion. See: Did Chennai learn anything from the 2015 floods?
Smart city initiative
“The 2015 floods was certainly a reminder for the civic body on the importance of lakes and its role in mitigating floods. Every time there is heavy rain, there is palpable fear,” said Raj Cherubal, chief executive officer for the Chennai Smart City Ltd (CSCL), a special purpose vehicle formed to implement several new-age initiatives in different spheres of urban planning. The INR 10 billion (USD 146 million) initiative gets half its funding from the central government, and the rest from the state government. It is to be implemented over five years.
With the formation of CSCL, some 210 lakes in the cities have been identified, and are in the process of being eco-restored by the Chennai Corporation, several corporations through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds and non-governmental organisations.
With so many entities in the fray, there is no standard protocol on restoring these water bodies. “Each entity, depending on their budget, takes up restoration work. It seems as though the restorations plans for individual lakes are quite ad hoc without a larger plan,” Pradeep Kumar, a Chennai-based reporter who covers the Greater Chennai Corporation on a daily basis, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Restoration of several wetlands, mangroves, enforcement of coastal regulation zone rules and even water bodies in Chennai has fallen between the cracks of bureaucracy. The Chennai metropolitan area is a mega watershed area, with more than 4,000 water bodies in it. “Right now, we are looking only at lakes owned by the Chennai Corporation. Several more are owned by the different departments like fisheries, forest, PWD (public works department) and HR&CE (Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments),” Cherubal told indiaclimatedialogue.net. See: Mismanaged urbanisation and the destruction of Indian wetlands
Importance of local hydrology
To make meaningful changes, the hydrology of the region must be considered as a whole, experts say. “All the water flows from west to east through a system of intricate canals and storm water drains. Any restoration should be done holistically, keeping in mind the larger hydrology and topography of the region,” said S Janakarajan, Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies.
Janakarajan has studied the hydrology of Chennai and it’s water bodies over the past 15 years and has been a member of several committees set up by various government agencies. He estimates that at least 15% of the Chennai’s water bodies have been lost due to encroachment. “There is not a single study to show the extent of the loss,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Janakarajan remains critical about lake and water restoration projects in the city. “The restorations in the past have usually been ad hoc. To restore a water body, a silt survey needs to be done, the supply channels to the water body and storm water drains need to be restored, and encroachments be cleared. There has to be a systematic approach while restoring the lake,” he pointed out.
The CEO of CSCL is candid about these shortfalls and says there have been challenges that they have been working for the past year. He says that apart from the detailed project reports that the corporations have done for 32 lakes, the entity that is restoring the lake takes up the responsibility of identifying the problem and take appropriate measures.
“Based on the budget of the corporates, we suggest which lake they can take up. There are a couple of technical NGOs that help in studying the requirements of each lake and what needs to be done for restoration. These are put in a report and is submitted to the corporation for approval,” said Cherubal.
He agreed that different NGOs have different methods and protocols to survey lakes. Some of the parameters to look for are identifying the perimeter of the lake, the amount of silt that gets deposited, the original depth and capacity and the quality of the water. “However, we ensure that minimum standards are maintained, such as de-silting, strengthening bunds (embankments), and taking help from the (municipal) corporation to remove encroachment,” he said.
When it comes to identifying and restoring storm water drains and supply channels to the water bodies, different government agencies have different responsibilities. “The next step of evolution is to integrate all these responsibilities,” said Cherubal.
There have been several lakes that have been discovered in Chennai. “In some places, it would just like look vegetation, till we find that there was once a lake [there, in the] revenue records,” Cherubal said. “There are at least 50 more lakes within the corporation limits that have completely disappeared due to encroachment,” Balamurugan N., a senior associate from Chennai City Connect, one of the several NGOs working closely with CSCL in restoring lakes in the city, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
While a few lakes have been encroached upon, others have been polluted with garbage and sewage. A few others need dredging and de-silting. “In 97 lakes, some sort of work has started. We expect to restore all lakes before the commencement of this year’s north-east monsoon,” said Cherubal.
Lakes and climate resilience
Restoring lakes is seen as a way of making the city resilient to climate change, recharge groundwater resources and ensure the flora and fauna of the city are given space to flourish. “Some 16 lakes are already in good condition,” said an engineer from the Greater Chennai Corporation, who did not want to be named.
The 2015 flood is not the only reason why Chennai needs to restore its lakes. The coastal city has become wetter over the years and needs a proper drainage system for the water to run off. “The annual average rainfall has increased, and droughts now remain in distant memory,” Y.E.A. Raj, a former deputy director general of India Meteorological Department, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Data from IMD show that the city has received excessive rainfall between 2004 and 2011, for eight years consecutively. “This is the longest streak ever since weather recording began in Chennai in 1870,” Raj said.
Activists in the city say that they do not see any sincerity in the way the Greater Chennai Corporation or the Government of Tamil Nadu goes about protected water bodies or wetlands to make the city safe from flooding and other vagaries of climate change. They point out that the biggest encroachers have gone untouched.
“In general, what we have seen of the Chennai Corporation or the government of Tamil Nadu is that they are simply targeting low-income encroachers. It does not have the capacity or the political will to take on the really big industrial and commercial encroachers,” said Nityananad Jayaraman, an activist based in Chennai. “In Ennore, close to 2,000 acres of wetlands have already been encroached upon by various industries like the Kamarajar Port and the North Chennai Thermal Power Station. Another equal amount or more is expected of wetlands is expected to be encroached with the help of the state government and various other authorities who are responsible for protecting Chennai for Adani port. I don’t see any sincerity in any of this (initiative to restore water bodies).”