City of Chennai and the legend of the vanishing waterbodies
By Sushmitta Renganathan
Historically, waterbodies have marked the beginnings of many important civilizations. From the mentions of Mylapore as a great Pallava port, our pre colonial history as a fishing village, to the recently proposed archeological excavations on the Eastern banks of the Kosasthalaiyar; all confirm that Chennai and its outskirts were once such a bed, rich in culture, natural resources, and biodiversity. In modern urban environments, water bodies continue to play a primary role in helping the society sustain, by maintaining the ground water recharge, balancing the ecosystem, controlling temperature, and preventing floods. Thus, they continue to hold prominence amongst the factors that guarantee a healthy society.
However, in a bid to increase the urban area since 2000, an unbelievable degree of sprawl and encroachment have drastically modified the serene blue and green landscape of waterbodies and greenery in Chennai. This style of urbanization, that seems like an impulsive course of a real-time “Mine Sweeper” game, sweeps through the landscape radially from the coast to the inland; diminishing, and deteriorating waterbodies along the way through burgeoning blocks of buildings. Unlike the game, the consequences are experienced long after.
These severe modifications are reflected today in the impaired absorption capacity of waterbodies, the deteriorated quality of water, disturbed aquatic biodiversity, and the devastations caused by floods and droughts. It has also resulted in a majority of water bodies permanently disappearing from the landscape of the city; some leaving traces of their long-lost existence right under our feet. We experience them as residential, institutional, commercial, and recreational establishments, or even as roads and empty plots, that are annually under the threat of flooding.
When waterbodies disappear due to encroachment, many at times, these encroachments or their surroundings face issues arising from poor drainage. One such encroachment can be observed in the video above, focusing on a location close to the Eastern limit of Chennai. Today, the consequences of the encroachment are reflected in a small way on stretch of land used as make-shift playground in this location; that annually transforms into a marsh between the months of September and December.
These anomalies in our urban landscapes, are the traces that remain of some of Chennai’s lost waterbodies, and they serve today, as reminders of the prominence that these waterbodies might have had in ensuring the sustainability of the city and the wellbeing of the users, had they been saved.