It has become an annual affair for Chennai to hit the headlines for its frequent flood and drought-like scenarios.
The south Indian port has become a case study in what can go wrong when industrialization, urbanisation and extreme weather converge, and a booming metropolis paves over its floodplains and waterways to satisfy demand for new homes, factories and offices.
Before it is too late, there is a need to save Chennai from choking and sinking.
And the Pallikaranai wetland is the city's only saving grace. It is said to be the lone wetland in Chennai that helps prevent floods. The marsh acts as a sponge, storing monsoon rains and releasing them during dry months.
But now the marsh has shrunk in size. And turned from a carbon sink to a methane pool.
To understand the scale, severity and potential solutions to the crisis, we must explore and answer the following questions.
Why does Chennai oscillate between a flood and drought-like situation every year?
How has water made living in Chennai an expensive affair?
What went wrong in urban planning for us to lose all our natural flood mitigators?
Can Chennai be saved from sinking?
How can the Pallikaranai marshland be the city’s saving grace?
A Series by The Quint
Why Is Chennai Running Out of Water?
Why Is Pallikaranai a Key to Chennai’s Water Crisis?
Chennai, India’s sixth largest city with a population of 5 million people, is running out of water. Since 2015, Chennai has seen floods, cyclones and heavy rainfall events.
And yet, by 2030, just 8 years from now, over 70% of Chennai will not have water.
Every year since 2015, Chennai has been living the collective trauma of the crisis. Every year, it is the same colonies that get affected. The same people who have to run for shelter.
The city gets an average of about 1,400 mm (55 inches) of rainfall a year. Known as a water-rich capital, Chennai hit the headlines in 2019 for being one of the first major cities in the world to run out of water — trucking in 10 million litres a day to hydrate its population. And yet in January 2021, it had the wettest January in decades.
The age-old adage, ‘Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink’ fits perfectly well to describe Chennai today.
I know exactly which streets will get flooded when it rains because it is the same story every monsoon. But the question that Chennaities like me are asking is why do we oscillate between a flood and drought-like situation year on year?
The truth is that while weather patterns have been erratic due to climate change, Chennai has added to its own woes as half the city has no stormwater drains and the rest of it is relying on what was built over 6 decades ago.
When I went to Badrikarai in Chennai’s Kodambakkam in August 2022, Kamala Akka asked me, “There is no water upto my waist and there is water coming in my taps. There is no crisis, so why have you come this year?”
I’ve known Akka for seven years as she faces the brunt of the crisis every year. I said, “Maybe you have water today but the crisis is far from over.”
So, who gets water and who doesn’t?
Sumathi is a 29-year-old domestic worker. She lives in the heart of the city but gets water for just 2 hours every day.
Sumathi remarks, "We have four pots and a big drum in which we store our water. I catch water in six pots everyday. So this is mostly for cooking and washing utensils. We buy drinking water cans because I noticed that the water here is a little brownish in colour on some days. During summer, we get water supply only once in two days.
When it rains heavily, this place gets flooded. Too many mosquitoes. The stench is like stale meat. Recently, my son got a urinary infection near his genitalia due to the water quality."
We sat down working out her monthly budget and that is when we realised the money she has spent on water has exponentially increased over the years. As a woman earning a meagre Rs 15,000 per month, she is struggling to support a family of five.
Nandini is 40 years old. She lives in the IT corridor of Chennai and gets water round-the-clock. But Nandini has to pay for her water through the year and lives with the risk of flooding.
She says, "There is no metro water connection to this part of the city. And no sewage water lines too. We are completely reliant on lorries. A lorry mafia runs here. During a drought or flood-like situation, the prices go up. Additionally, we have to buy drinking water. The water we get here naturally is too salty to be used for anything."
How much do they spend on water every year? Let’s do the math.
In the year 1970, this was the total water spread area in Pallikaranai marsh. 76% of the marsh area was water.
By 1980, the water spread area was down to 57%. This is exactly what the marsh looked like then.
In the 1980s, there was a marginal improvement. From 57% in 1980, it went up to 60% in 1990.
By the turn of the millenium, the water spread area further reduced to only half the marshland area. From 76% just three decades earlier, it came down to 50% in 2000.
By 2010, the water spread area of the marsh was down to a mere 35%. Just around one-third of the marsh was left with water.
And here, notice the change in land use patterns in the Pallikaranai marshland.
It's not the story of Pallikaranai marsh alone either. From 1893 to 2017, water bodies in Chennai shrank from 12.6 sq km to 3.2 sq km. The IT corridor alone ate up 230 sq km of marshland that acted as natural flood mitigators.
We lose nearly 80% of rainfall to run-off because we have concretised the city, leaving no ground for percolation.
This demand-supply gap is widening and is expected to double by 2030. However, storage capacity has not increased adequately.
Pallikaranai marsh is South Chennai's shield from tsunamis, floods, cyclones and droughts.
Pallikaranai marsh, known as kazhuveli (waterlogged area in Tamil), is Chennai’s saving grace. The wetland falls within the Perungudi and Pallikaranai areas and lies parallel to the Buckingham Canal in Chennai. The Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR), also known as the IT Corridor or Rajiv Gandhi Salai cuts across the marsh as does Chennai’s Mass Rapid Transport System (MRTS) railway line and stations.
According to research done by the Care Earth Trust in 1991, the marsh covered 2,450 hectares in 1991 but by 2015, the marsh had lost out to various development projects including the railway line and shrunk to an area of 600 hectares.
In July 2022, Pallikaranai marsh reserve forest in Chennai was declared as a Ramsar site or Wetland of International Importance. The Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty established in 1975 by UNESCO, which “provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.”
The photograph above looks quite picture perfect, doesn't it? But that is far from the truth. This is Okkiyam Maduvu, the water channel that connects the Pallikaranai marsh to the Buckingham canal which in turns connects to the ocean at Kovalam.
This 2.8 kilometre channel is the reason why South Chennai was saved from the tsunami in 2005. This is a natural flood mitigator and source to recharge groundwater. But due to encroachments and contamination, this has become a dumping ground of sorts.
A study published in January 2007 found higher amounts of banned chemicals like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and hexachlorocyclohexane (HCH) in the water in Chennai.
The algal bloom signifies presence of methane which can kill all life forms.
The dumpyard has caught fire twice already due to chemicals released from the dumpsite into the water.
Prashanth lives just 500 metres from the marshland. He wants to move out as his family cannot bear inhaling the toxic fumes anymore.
He remarked, "This looks like a very beautiful place but I think it is all about the cosmetics.
The pollution from the dumpyard you see here is massive, the smell it emanates is very intense. The government needs to behave as the custodians of the waterbody, not owners."
An air sample taken during a dumpyard fire in December 2005 revealed presence of 27 toxic chemicals including 3 carcinogens in the air.
Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman lamented, "What is strange for a city like Chennai is that we think the water is polluted only if it turns pink. If the pink goes away, then it is (considered) normal. That is the dangerous normal we are living in."
A healthy wetland is a carbon sink. A dirty wetland is a carbon source.
In 2001, when Chennai was going through an intense water crisis, the state passed a legislation to make rainwater harvesting mandatory across all houses and buildings in the state. The scheme was promoted aggressively and the central government’s report in 2011 titled ‘Groundwater scenario in major cities of India’ revealed that the scheme had indeed improved the water level.
But soon corruption took over, and more than 15 years later, the situation has completely reversed.
While lofty plans are being made to set up desalination plants and to interlink rivers, environmentalists suggest that the right solution is to harvest the rain water and set up adequate storage tanks. For a city that has 26,553 people in every square km, conserving water could be the best way to deal with drought, and also floods.
A committed and sustained approach to desilt and restore water bodies is essential as well.
That's Dwarakadas Suresh, a resident of Chennai's Kilpauk, a man who is better known as Solar Suresh.
He remarks, "There is a perception that Chennai is water deficit. I have disproved this as I have not bought a single can of water for the past 30 years. I installed my rooftop solar and rainwater harvesting system 30 years ago. Rainwater falls on my terrace and through various pipes, I collect it in a sedimentation tank, something we’ve studied in school. From a 1,000 sq ft terrace, we can save about 1-2 lakh litres of water, if it rains for 10-15 days."
And what is it that experts say can be done to save Pallikaranai, the longtime saviour of Chennai?
- Integrity of the garbage dump must be broken
- Segregate garbage before it reaches the landfill
- Pallikaranai-Thoraipakkam road should be removed
- Local communities must be engaged
After all, if the marshland continues to be choked, Chennai will continue to flood...