Tale from Korattur

It’s a known fact that our city’s water bodies are in dire straits today – a fact acceded to by the people as well as the civic agencies – and the lakes that dot the suburban areas of Chennai and the adjoining districts are no exceptions to this. The water bodies in these districts – primarily lakes and ponds – had been the backbone for agriculture in these areas some decades back. Now the practice of agriculture out of sight, these have been virtually marked for destruction and are being fed for the endless and insatiable appetite of business magnates and politicians. In spite of being accepted that our city’s waters are lying uncared for, very little seems to have been done in the past years to replenish them. And this is a yet another story that tries to rip apart our inadvertence and make visible the state in which our lakes stand today.

Geography and History:Korattur LakeFigure 1: Geography of Korattur Lake

Korattur is a western suburb of Chennai and is bordered by Madhananguppam in the north, Kolathur in the east, Pattaravakkam/Ambattur in the west and Padi in the south. This area hosts the sprawling Korattur lake, whose area may vary anywhere between 600-990 acres today (the exact area can be known by filing an RTI application with the Revenue Department). This can easily be named as one of the largest of lakes in the western limits of the city, but lies virtually neglected and worse, badly victimized. Officially, it comes under the Kosasthalaiyar Division of Public Works Department and under Tiruvallur administrative district limits. The canals that connect this lake with other water bodies are vestiges of the once-prevailing agricultural practice in this area. There are two main canals – one running from the Ambattur lake that takes excess water and feeds the Korattur lake (located to the south); and the other running to Retteri lake, which drains excess water from Korattur lake (located to the north). The first canal has been sealed now, apparently to prevent entry of industrial effluents into the lake and which is mechanically broken in monsoons to prevent flooding in the neighbouring areas. City-planning can well be placed in the list of traits that we have lost in the course of our evolution and these canals stand testament to this! And we are poor utilizers too, for we have not put these bestowments to any good use in today’s post-agricultural era. Apart from these two main canals, the area once had had crisscrossing smaller canals – evidently for irrigational purposes – the mutilated parts of which lie scattered around now.

                 Old-timers reminisce of a Korattur, where the lake was much larger in area and the whole locality dotted with paddy fields, canals, ponds, etc… Today, so little of these remain, the reason for which is understandable and on the flipside, which need to be rescued and put to good use.

Ecology and Economy:

The lake has thriving populations of fishes, visiting birds, snakes, turtles, etc…, along with microscopic and macroscopic plants. The eBird database, a repository of checklists of birds from around the world, has recorded more than 130 species of birds in and around Korattur lake. This is an essential indicator of the potential of the water body to attract local and migratory birds. The pollution in the lake also attracts undesirable insects which befog the road adjacent to the lake, resulting in frequent accidents. The civic body responded by releasing around 200 ducks into the lake in November 2016, which provided temporary relief, but were washed away during the subsequent rains. In January 2015, a part of the lake appeared bright green in colour, apparently due to algal blooms, which is a strong indication of high pollution levels in the lake.

The lake is also home to several fish varieties such as Tilapia (ஜிலேபி), Catfish (வாளை), Snakehead fish (விரால்), etc… which are caught and consumed by the locals. Several years earlier, the lake hosted many species of snakes, which are conspicuously absent in the past few years. In June last year, sighting of dead fishes and turtles along the lake’s banks was reported, which lies bare the terrible state of the lake’s waters. The main factors that affect the ecology of the lake are sewage discharge by industries and domestic solid waste dumping.


Figure 2: Dead Fishes along the Bank. Courtesy – The New Indian Express

Afflictions and Adversities:


Figure 3: Water From Ambattur Entering Korattur Lake During Last Monsoon.        Courtesy – The Deccan Chronicle

The lake suffers from multiple issues ranging from sewage contamination to illegal encroachments, and the conditions have only deteriorated over the years due to noncompliance by the people and the civic agencies. The primary problem concerns with the discharge of industrial sewage from the neighbouring SIDCO (Ambattur) Industrial Estate and domestic sewage from houses situated around the lake. The untreated sewage from the industries enters through the “entry” canal that connects Ambattur and Korattur lakes. The issue is serious as the industries that line the estate include textile and dyeing units, Milk factory (Aavin) and Chemical industries, which may carry hazardous effluents. This is made worse by the unavailability of reliable data on the pollution levels and probable chemicals that are discharged into the lake. The gravity of the situation can be understood from the fact that some months before the monsoon, parts of the lake bed appeared crimson, which might well be due to deposition of heavy metal contaminants. So, a rigorous and dependable chemical test needs to be commissioned to identify the level of contamination and to forecast future pollution.

The water body has shrunk to a portion of its original size due to encroachments on almost all the sides. About 2,500 encroachments have been identified by the PWD, according to newspaper reports. Travelling through time in the Google Earth software, one can see the formation of a sizeable neighbourhood through incursion into the lake on its western side, between 2003 and 2018. Even on the side where the bunds stand strong, concrete buildings have been built on the banks which penetrate straight into the lake. Although technically not encroachments, apartments and gated communities that are up and coming close, pose grave dangers to the future of the lake.

A petition has been filed in the Southern bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on behalf of Korattur People’s Welfare and Awareness Trust, for the restoration of the lake. The case, in which about seven industries in the Ambattur industrial estate, including Aavin factory, have been included as respondents, has seen the tribunal issue several orders against discharge of untreated industrial effluents into the lake, which have ostensibly fallen on deaf ears.


Figure 4: Crimson Deposit in the Lake Bed in August 2017

Lake - SludgeFigure 5: Sludge and a Part of Encroachment in the Lake

Solution and Resolution :

The need of the hour is to block off the hazardous sewage from industries, which can go a long way in saving the lake bed from permanent and large-scale contamination. Another major aspect is to reclaim lost area of the lake and at least, to save the existing area by undertaking proper measurement of the total land area, demarcation of the existing borders and developing/strengthening bunds on all sides. Long-time residents of the area have no memories of any measure attempted to deepen the lake and so, it’s imperative to dredge and deepen the lake to increase the water holding capacity of the water body. As the work needs to be started somewhere, it can be started by physically removing the plastic waste that floats along the banks and removal of invasive water plants to decrease the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) for the fishes and other aquatic species to thrive. An attempt by volunteers from different NGOs and neighbouring schools last year to clean the lake can be taken as a model to reproduce in the near future.

In the year 2015, the Government of Tamilnadu announced that the lake will be converted into an eco-tourism spot with boating facilities and funds have been allotted for the same. Keeping in mind the haste with which people beckon pollution in the lake, this fund can be used to completely restore the lake and plant native trees along the eater body, through public-private partnerships (PPPs) with registered NGOs. On the whole, the residents of Korattur can resolve to make the Korattur lake healthy in 2018 – a resolution to make their neighbourhood liveable.

Glimmer of Hope:

Unlike some other lakes in the southern suburbs of Chennai, where the water bodies are fragmented or are virtually non-existent, Korattur lake still stands mighty and holds the hope of getting restored and rejuvenated. But that doesn’t mean it should get less attention than the other water bodies. In fact, these lakes which are large and comparatively less damaged, need to be restored first as it will inspire restoration of other more deteriorated ones. The primary task is to get the local populace educated about the need for the restoration of the lake and get them involved in the same. The sewage discharge and encroachments need to be dealt effectively through the law courts. Civilians need to take part in building a constructive environment to live in and hence, the mantra should be – lake restoration is for and by the people!

Lake 2Figure 6: The Sprawling Korattur Lake During 2017 Monsoon

Courtesy: Daily Newspapers (The Hindu, The Times of India, The New Indian Express, Deccan Chronicle, Dinakaran, Dinamani, Dinamalar)



Keelkattalai Lake: A sorry symbol of South Chennai’s creeping water crisis

Chennai’s southern suburbs face a unique predicament. In summers, neighbourhoods such as Pallavaram and Keelkattalai suffer from an acute and crippling shortage of water, but come monsoon and they are sinking waist-deep in it! At the centre of this twin-crisis is the problem of the region’s several lakes that have disappeared over the last few decades, or ones such as the Keelkattalai Lake that is on the path to being wiped off the map because of factors such as encroachments, dumping of sewage and solid waste.

The Keelkattalai lake flanks the Pallavaram-Thoraipakkam Radial Road on both sides between Perumal Nagar and the Eechangadu Signal and covers an approximate area of 16.77 Ha. However, this wasn’t always the case. When the radial road was constructed in 2000, it was decided that it would cut through the Keelkattalai Lake, dividing it in half in the process. The part of the lake north of the Radial Road has shrunk considerably over recent years due to the rapid development of Easwaran Nagar in the north and Perumal Nagar to the northwest. The southern part of the lake, on the other hand, has been the victim of increased dumping of garbage over recent years and has also seen several new industries and factories coming up in its border. The southern part of the lake is of a rectangular shape while the northern half is triangular and tapers towards the northern end. In the nearly two decades since the construction of the radial road, the area surrounding Keelkattalai Lake has undergone rapid development. As of 2014, there were more than 2,500 individual units of housing under construction along the radial road, with many of them in the vicinity of the lake. This has further burdened the lake in terms of increased instances of construction waste and garbage dumping and the dumping of untreated sewage water. Lakes in South Chennai mostly follow a similar pattern when looking at their formation.

If there was ever a time when the Keelkattalai Lake was used as a source of drinking water, that time is long gone. The major sources of water input in the lake have always been precipitation, groundwater, and water inflow through streams emerging during monsoons, all of which are safe for daily use. However, lakes in this region have been subjected to heavy pollution in the form of dumping of sewage into the lake as a result of the inadequate capacity of the UGDs or Under drainage system. One look at the statistics will reveal the gravity of this problem – at present, areas coming under the Pallavaram Municipality generate upwards of 1 MLD (Million Litres per Day) of sewage, whereas the installed capacity of the UGD system in the municipality stands at just half that at 0.5 MLD. The lion’s share of the excess sewage invariably makes its way to the lakes in the regions such as the Keelkattalai lake. Another significant component contributing to the pollution of this water source is dumping of garbage and industrial waste from the few factories flanking this lake. Until a few years ago, the dumping of garbage and plastic waste was rampant around the fringes of the lake, however, in recent years the dumping of garbage generated in Pallavaram and neighbouring areas has been shifted to the new Vengadamangalam bio-methanization plant with the capacity of processing over 100 MT of garbage. However, this shift has not meant that a resolution has been found to the problem of existing garbage at the lake, which has resulted in problems in its fringes such as algal blooms. The triangular region between Velachery, Vandalur, and Thoraipakkam falls in an area where excess water from larger lakes to the west of Chennai has historically flowed through towards the sea. A large number of these lakes, therefore, have artificial origins for the purpose of irrigation and were created by stopping this flow of water. However, unchecked development in the recent decades has blocked off most of these inflow channels, leading to two problems where the lakes such as Keelkattalai Lake aren’t fed adequately, while areas that have come up in the path of the water have become prone to excessive flooding.
The economic value of lakes such as the Keelkattalai Lake has often been downplayed and ignored, thanks in part to the decline of agriculture in the area. The artificial lake once played a critical and well-defined role in the agricultural economy of the region, both irrigating lands in the area during summers and also protecting them from flooding during the monsoons. Today, however, Keelkattalai Lake falls smack dab in the middle of one of the most lucrative regions for real estate development, the Pallavaram-Thoraipakkam Radial Road and agriculture is something that has disappeared from practice in the vicinity of the lake since decades. However, that is not to say that the lake has lost its primary economic value and continued to provide the region with essential water supply by replenishing the groundwater table. With the decline of the lake, the water balance of this region faces a dire risk. Borewells feeding off the groundwater are the primary source of non-drinking water for the more than 5,000 new households estimated to come up in the area in the next few years. And according to longtime residents, the groundwater table and the depth at which water is available has declined to unprecedented levels in recent years. Where borewells hit water within just a few feet at one point, now there is no water even at 500 feet at certain places. Large-scale constructions that have more than 100 units of houses have come up in large numbers around the lake and draw large volumes of water for daily use. The accepted calculation for average per capita water usage for communities with a population of fewer than 100,000 residents is between 100-150 litres per day. And according to the 2011 census, the population of Keelkattalai stood at nearly 30,000, meaning that on a usual day the residents require a minimum water supply of approximately 3 MLD. A striking contrast is that even at an average depth of 4 feet, the entire Keelkattalai Lake approximately contains a volume of water that barely touches 150 million litres. With the groundwater table depleting and the Keelkattalai Lake and other such lakes disappearing, the region faces an acute shortage of water in the near future if nothing is done.   
Problems and solutions
Apart from the issues already talked about, a major problem plaguing the Keelkattalai Lake is that of encroachments. Not just individual houses and establishments, but entire colonies and neighbourhoods have come up in recent years in parts which were once covered by the lake. Moreover, the construction of the 200-ft Radial Road has increased connectivity in the region and has led to rampant and unchecked development, with dozens of major developers vying for land in the region surrounding the lake. Being an artificial lake, the Keelkattalai Lake isn’t more than a few meters deep at any point, with the outer boundaries being even more shallow. A direct result of this is that the water surface area of the lake fluctuates greatly in relation to the amount of water, and substantially recedes in drought years and summers. It is these receded areas that have almost completely been encroached by constructions. 
Thanks to the efforts of activists and the jolt received as a result of the damage done by the 2015 Chennai Floods, the government and authorities are finally turning their attention to fixing these long-standing problems. In a major turn of fortunes for the Keelkattalai, it has been identified under a government project for a gamut of improvements costing nearly Rs. 15 cr. The project has been undertaken by the State Government under the Tamil Nadu Sustainable Urban Development Project with the help of a World Bank loan and will carry out improvement works in the Pallavaram Lake and Keelkattalai Lake. These improvements will include desilting of the lake basin and reinforcing the lake bunds apart from installing sluice valves to take care of excess water. 

Through the ‘Lakes of India’ blog, E.F.I intends to highlight the plight of several lakes across the country.

You can write and send us your story to communication@indiaenvironment.org and we shall publish your lake story too.  Together let us conserve India’s Lakes.

Article by: Arun Venkataraman, Photos by: Photo: Rolex Awards / Stefan Walter