It would have been worthwhile if the article did not merely echo the claims of Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust but looked a little closer at the issues involved – wetland restoration, obstruction of water flow into the river, garbage dumping and pollution through sewage, biomedical and industrial waste, dumping of construction material, a more nuanced understanding of rivers and riverine systems especially in the context of rising sea levels and new understandings in the current pandemic situation (Years of collective effort pay off as Chennai’s Adyar river comes back to life).

Several thousand crores of rupees have, in the last 15 years, been put into these river projects, which includes the Adyar. How this money has translated into environmental success benefitting the city is a key question that needs to be asked.

The entire article is primarily based on information from Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust regarding the success of the wetland restoration or the improved quality of water. There is no independent assessment by domain experts that would validate these claims.

Dr Ranjit Daniels, TK Ramkumar and I [Tara Murali] were members appointed by the Madras High Court to the Monitoring Committee to oversee the 58-acre restoration of Adyar creek. Comments attributed to Daniels and Ramkumar below are in personal communications to me.

Daniels writes on the wetland restoration and biodiversity of the Adyar creek:

“I have since the beginning maintained that this is not a restoration project but a well-planned landscaping effort. Any such effort will provide results in the short-term as biodiversity, especially birds are quick to adapt and occupy newly created habitats. 

My concern is about the fish diversity. Twelve species is not a good indicator. For instance, the Chembarabakkam lake has nearly 100 species and Pallikaranai Marsh 50 species. One would expect many more in the Adyar Poonga if the ecology has been restored. 

Also, 10 species of amphibians can be found in most wetlands of Chennai. Since no documentation of the biodiversity of the Poonga prior to the cleaning and landscaping exercise is available as baseline data, conclusions such as ‘pay off’ are at best premature.”

Regarding the quality of water in the Adyar river today, TK Ramkumar writes:

“Till about 15 years ago, there was little sewage outfall into the river in the upper reaches. However, with the construction of the Outer Ring Road and urbanization of suburbs, pollution outfalls become acute where the main surplus channel from Chembrambakkam Lake joins the Adyar.

Significant dumping of garbage and other waste on the banks of the River happens around this very point.

From Anakapathur, the wide flood bank of the river is now greatly obstructed especially by construction of the second runway by the airport.

Housing colonies have come up on converted agricultural lands in the suburbs which have no underground sewer network. Sewage overflow from septic tanks flow into the Adyar.

Many of the existing pumping stations along the Adyar often let out untreated sewage into the river as the capacity of the treatment plant at Nessapakkam is far short of handling the daily load.

Urbanisation of the slip-off slope of the meander from Nandambakkam, Saidapet and Kotturpuram and of the flood banks on either side downstream of Kotturpuram bridge severely reduces the flood carrying capacity of the river, resulting in the 2015 kind of flooding.

The 2015 floods did not flush away the accumulated sewage sludge on the river bed.

No claim of success of wetland restoration of Adyar Creek can be made since this tidal creek is no longer connected in a pristine manner to the Estuary and the Santhome Causeway also obstructing the flow of water between Creek and Estuary.”

The article gives importance to the boast of Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust regarding evictions.

The article stated, “One of the first issues which had to be undertaken in restoring the river was rehousing human settlements along the banks, according to an official source who wished to remain anonymous”.

The Severn Trend Report of 1991 pegged the contribution of such settlement at about 0.16% of the total pollution load of the waterways. There is no evidence that this percentage had changed over the years and that removal of these settlements has resulted in a vast improvement of the water quality.

However, the drastic action has resulted in removal of people living on the banks of the river and pushed to faraway places, away from livelihoods and schools. These pandemic times have indicated the value and worth of people who keep the city clean and running even as they may reside in “illegal” settlements.

A river can come truly alive only if the biodiversity along the banks impacted by the water flow is restored. While the article mentions “….. that one of the other steps taken by the trust was to demarcate the land which ‘belonged’ to the river, which in some areas was 30 metres along the river banks and in others 50 metres”. What does “belong” to the river mean in this context? Is it mere land ownership by public or private agencies? Have steps been taken to identify the river banks of yesteryears to ensure that the river can once again be truly rejuvenated?

Further with the raising of embankments and altering the surface flow of water from land into the rivers (watershed areas) and flooding during periods of high flow from the river to land (floodplains) it is highly unlikely that the full potential of the river in promoting riverine biodiversity will ever be achieved.

Next, for the large sums of money spent and to be spent one wonders if there are no less expensive and softer solutions. The costly project of building fences to prevent rubbish dumping into the river, is a top-down approach of hard landscaping.

Such walls alienate local people who are the immediate beneficiaries and should be the natural guardians of the river. This is how indigenous and forest communities look after their natural resources and this is the lesson for implementing agencies of an environmental project.

Finally, the crucial question of climate change and the impact of rising sea waters – have the agencies including Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust paused to reflect on what the future may hold for the Adyar river, creek and estuary?

The glimmer of success seen by the author of the article may well remain just that and no more. – Tara Murali