Time to change course

Chennai city will have no future if plans to fill the Ennore creek go ahead

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Since December 2015, Chennai has limped from one extreme weather-related shock to another — the floods, the failed monsoon of 2016, Cyclone Vardah, and now the water crisis. Chennai’s defining element is water. But the city shows scant regard for this precious but dangerous resource. Located squarely in the intervening floodplains of three rivers on a high-energy coastline, Chennai is a disaster-prone location. Any badly located city can be vulnerable merely by virtue of its location. But only a special kind of city — a city with a death wish — actively makes a bad situation worse.

Nothing speaks more elegantly to Chennai’s death wish than what governments are doing to the wetlands in North Chennai. In June, the State government conceded the Government of India-owned Kamarajar Port Ltd’s (KPL) request to divert 1,000 acres of the hydrologically sensitive Ennore wetlands for industrial installations that are best built on dry land. The proposal is pending Central government clearance. If permitted, KPL’s dream will turn out to be Chennai’s worst nightmare, far worse than the 2015 floods.

The importance of Ennore

Ennore Creek, a sprawling 8,000-acre tidal waterbody, is a place where climate change and disastrous land-use change converge. Two rivers with a total catchment of 5,000 sq km empty into the Ennore Creek.

This wetland’s importance may not be apparent. Much of the creek looks dry year-round, when visible waterspread is only 1,000 acres. But when cyclonic weather pushes the sea surging landwards, or when rainwaters from the two rivers come rushing to meet the sea, the waterspread in the creek swells to its majestic fullness. Come rain or storm surge, the availability of room for the rain or sea water to stay is what keeps the city from going under.

The creek offers another protection too. It buffers the rich aquifers of the Araniyar-Kosasthalaiyar Basin from the sea, and keeps salt water from invading groundwater resources that supply several hundred million litres daily to Chennai even during the worst droughts.

In 1996, the Tamil Nadu government protected a 6,500-acre stretch of the tidal waterbody under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification. But greed prevailed over good sense. More than 1,000 acres of the creek were lost to illegal encroachments that rise like dams across a river.

The offending installations block the path of rainwaters rushing down the Arani river and the mighty Kosasthalaiyar. Areas that never got flooded saw waters enter homes and remain for more than a fortnight in 2015. Tamil Nadu’s lifeline, the Manali petroleum refinery, went under water for days.

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