The monsoons are giving us of their plenty for a change and the newspapers report that the citizens are already wearying of the rainfall. And yet, for most of the year, we read about and experience acute water shortage for all of which we blame scanty rainfall. Given that Chennai’s monsoon barely lasts a month and is inconsequential when you compare it with rains that cities such as Kolkata and Mumbai receive during their monsoons, why is it that our metro collapses at the first sighting of a cloud?

Historically, ours has been a city that has paid scant attention to its water bodies. The condition of the three principal ones – the Buckingham Canal, the Adyar and the Cooum – is too well known to merit writing about, but our record in terms of tanks and lakes is even worse. In the past, the Government itself was one of the worst offenders. Several planned colonies – T’Nagar, the Lake Area in Nungambakkam and parts of Mambalam – are all built on drained tank beds, as also is a vast part of the industrial area in Padi which came up on what was the Villivakkam Tank. Several decades have gone by since these developments and we cannot put the clock back. We must also take into account the fact that those were times when ideas of environmental protection and water conservation were non-existent.

But have we learnt from our experiences since then? Sadly, no. A study done when the Second Master Plan for Chennai was being finalised a few years ago revealed that between the 1970s and the 1990s, the area of 19 major lakes and tanks in the city had shrunk from 1,130 hectares to 645 hectares. That means a reduction in storage capacity of around 50 per cent. Where does the surplus water go? It floods the surrounding localities, all of which have come up on lake beds. The suburban areas of the city were once blessed with a number of canals and stormwater channels that drained into lakes. With the lakes themselves gone, most of the waterways drain into residential colonies. In certain areas, the channels themselves have been encroached upon.
Building colonies on water bodies has a time-tested pattern in Chennai. It all begins with the dumping of waste and construction debris on the periphery. Shortly thereafter, access routes are laid to these spots so that trucks and carts can make their way to carry on with the land filling activities. This ensures that the lake shrinks in area and also that water channels to it slowly get cut off. Then, people begin putting up makeshift shelters on the banks, with the blessings of local political interests. The lake keeps drying up in the meanwhile and, very soon, someone acquires the place (in name if not in deed), divides the dry bed into plots and sells them off. Chennai has a hoary tradition of ‘eri colonies’, all of which are sudden developments on lakebeds.

The administration watches all this passively, at times even extending electricity and water connections to such settlements. When it rains these places flood and the residents raise a hue and cry. The water, which was once a lifeline, is now blamed for all problems. The administration is arm-twisted into giving compensation for losses suffered. Today, with greater awareness, residents and environment conservationists are keeping a sharp watch on encroachment along lakes and tanks. Some lost water bodies have even been recovered in the teeth of opposition from vested interests. But all this is too little, too late. Unless the administration wakes up and nips attempts to take over water bodies at the very start, we will continue to be inundated when it rains and be short of water when it shines.

This article was written before the great flood. Happenings since then have not necessitated any change in the contents.