For a city that is perennially starved of water, Chennai has paid scant attention to the conservation of this scarce resource. The city was ringed in by as many as 650 water bodies till around two decades ago. Today, a mere fraction survives. Those that do are victims of continued encroachments and poor maintenance. With the city becoming increasingly dependent on sources such as the Krishna River for its water, why does it not pay any attention to the wealth that is in its own backyard?
Greed for land would perhaps be the first reason. It must not be forgotten that, as early as 1921, Madras filled in one of its largest reservoirs, the Long Tank of Mylapore, to create T’Nagar. Those were times when environmental consciousness was not heard of. What is surprising is that these practices continue even today. Thus we have a long history of vanishing lakes and tanks. The Nungambakkam Tank, the Rettai Eri in Vyasarpadi and the Kodungaiyur Tank are but a few instances of what we have lost.
While some were filled in as part of a conscious decision to expand the city’s land area, others have died out due to encroachments. The Maduravoyal Lake is only one-fifth of what it was around two decades ago. The Kadaperi Lake in West Tambaram has lost 15 acres in recent years, much of it to a burgeoning colony on its banks. With the continued dumping of garbage, the water body has become more of a cesspool and its degradation has led to the wells in the neighbourhood getting polluted. The lake is now viewed as the cause of the problem and there is a growing body of opinion that it ought to be filled in! It is a sad state of affairs that the civic body in charge remains silent when encroachments and pollution of water resources happen under its very nose. It wakes up when matters can no longer be set right.
Unplanned expansion and the mushrooming of colonies overnight have added to the woes of our lakes and tanks. Chennai is not a city with much of an incline and, therefore, drainage is prone to be poor. Added to this is the lack of planning ahead when it comes to new areas being developed. The drains are invariably put in after the houses and other buildings have come up. With a suitable exit point for the drains not being available in many cases, those in charge of sewerage have found it convenient to drain it into neighbouring water bodies. This short-sighted approach has done untold damage.
The sheer apathy when it comes to maintenance of water bodies is another cause for concern. The Kadaperi Lake referred to above was last desilted in 1914! How can such a lake survive and take in water? Its capacity is bound to reduce over the years and it will cause flooding in the neighbourhood. It is now reliably learnt that desilting of major water bodies will be taken up with funds from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. But it is worthwhile pointing out that this is not the first time that funds have been earmarked for rejuvenating water bodies. The end result has invariably not been achieved.
The last great initiative that was taken up was the rainwater harvesting scheme. It was made compulsory in all buildings in the 1990s. It bore fruit and perhaps the best example of its success was the filling up of the Kapaleeswarar Temple tank in Mylapore. Since then, however, the enthusiasm has waned and it is doubtful if the scheme is being implemented with diligence. The drying up of all temple tanks in Mylapore, barring the Kapaleeswarar Temple tank is an indicator of this.
Can we afford to be indifferent to our water bodies? And can we be continuously dependent on external sources whose generosity cannot always be taken for granted, especially in years of drought such as this one? It is time Chennai became a responsible city and showed it by giving its lakes, ponds and tanks a new life.