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Three Chennai Rivers Are Dead and Nothing Can Bring Them Back To Life

The waterbodies showed no amount of dissolved oxygen, thus deeming them unfit for any kind of life.

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What We Know
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Reputed Chennai-based historian V Sriram once added a spin to Lord Tennyson’s poem The Brook: 

‘For men may come and men may go, but I (Cooum) stink on forever.’
Anyone living in Chennai will validate this line, that also applies to Adyar river and Buckingham canal.

A report by Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has now stated Chennai's three major waterbodies – Cooum river, Adyar river, and Buckingham canal – are "dead."

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Why are they labelled dead? Under the national river conservation programme, TNPCB collected samples from the three rivers and tested for 32 parameters. The three waterbodies showed no amount of dissolved oxygen, thus deeming them unfit for any kind of life form.

How polluted are Chennai's rivers? The rate of solids being dissolved each month in these waterbodies is 700 - 5,000 mg per litre. The water is highly contaminated by heavy metals and faecal matter is 70-300 mg per litre.

Why is Chennai Running Out of Drinking Water? Watch here.

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Why did the rivers die? Discharge of sewage and effluents directly into the water body without treating them is the primary reason for pollution. Four Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) were set up at four locations along the banks but none of them are functional. 

"We use waterbodies as a place to dump our sewage because we haven't devised a method to dispose it responsibly. The rivers in the north like Ganga, Yamuna are far more resilient because they are bigger and the flow of water is much stronger. So a lot of the plastic gets washed into the ocean. The rivers in the south aren't that way and the plastic just lives on," said environment activist Dharmesh Shah.

These rivers have been unfit for decades, but are still important. Why? Experts opined that these waterbodies are our natural barriers during such extreme weather events.

Did you know Chennai's only hope against the water crisis is this marshland? Watch here.

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Failed Plans: In 2015, the state government announced a restoration project with an ambitious budget of Rs 3,200 crores. In 2020, the government claimed to have removed over 23,000 tonnes of garbage, set up trash booms to catch floating sewage, blocked 13 of the 37 sewage outlets into the river, and set up STPs. But there has been no mechanism to keep a check on dumping of garbage and sewage.

Is there a solution? Government could set up online monitoring systems to keep a tab on pollution and levy fines on polluters, experts opined.

"The biggest fallacy is that Tamil Nadu has been treating all the waterbodies the same way. Cleaning up of rivers has become all about desilting, dredging, planting mangroves, creating islands, and putting bird watching towers. This doesn't restore the waterbody," said Jayshree of Care Earth.

A report tabled in the House of Commons in 1883 claimed, “In another year or two, the Cooum will be free of all sewage”. And we are talking about its death 140 years later!

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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