There can be no denying that the Muttukadu Estuary is one of the most scenic spots near our city. But all that may not be for long, given the rampant construction activity going on in its vicinity. But what is worse is the unchecked extraction of groundwater by all the establishments in the area – chiefly IT companies, hotels and housing complexes. This is drying up one of the chief aquifers of the city and it does not bode well for a metro that is perennially water-starved.

It is not as though we lack the laws. Since the 1980s, construction had been banned in this area, chiefly to protect the groundwater, which could be drawn by the city in times of need. This ban was, however, lifted in the last decade, mainly to cater to the demand of the IT sector. The considered opinion in the 1990s was that with rainwater harvesting schemes in place within Chennai, it might no longer need the water from Muttukadu. That has, however, proved to be a false assumption, for successively weak monsoons and the lack of proper implementation of rainwater harvesting have ensured that the city is once again searching for fresh sources of the precious liquid.

As is usual when such bans are lifted, the stakeholders involved were all consulted. The qualifying remarks of Metrowater were a classic instance of bureaucratese: “Any major developments in the proposed tourism corridor should take into account the unique hydrological ecosystem of the area.” With that mild caution in place, everything was set for rapid ‘development’ of the estuary and its surroundings, with the present result. Groundwater extraction, however, is not the only issue. Disposal of sewage is a bigger problem. Many of the establishments here are draining their effluents into the estuary. It may not be long before the water body begins to resemble the Cooum. Experts are of the view that the groundwater in the area has already been irreversibly contaminated.

The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority and the Corporation of Chennai are being blamed for the present situation. A majority of the structures – be they hotels, offices, residences or amusement parks – in the area have been built in violation of construction codes and CRZ regulations. The two regulatory bodies have chosen to turn a blind eye, despite being armed with some of the strictest laws in the land. As we have said in some of our earlier articles connected with building violations, the lethargy of our civic body when it comes to enforcing its rules is amazing. We have already seen the kind of havoc this has caused within the city in places like T’Nagar. The same situation appears to be developing in the outskirts also.

With so many buildings coming up, the demand for water has skyrocketed in the area. This has resulted in more and more borewells being installed, each with increasing depth to tap the water that is fast receding. Many of the housing complexes have more than one borewell and some of these are drying up within one or two years of drilling – an indication of how fast we are using up the water. These complexes have in turn begun depending on water tankers, which in turn are bringing in water from wells dug further away. What is clear is that this is a vicious cycle that we would do well to get out of.

The key to that rests with the CMDA and the Corporation. They do know about the illegal buildings here to begin with. They need to crack the whip on these and get them out of the way. That would be good enough as a beginning. We would then need to introduce strict norms on the wells that can be dug and the quota of water that can be consumed by each establishment. Let’s face it, we are a water-scarce city. The sooner we wake up to that, the better.