The long suffering residents of Chennai have been living with two dead rivers, the Adyar and the Cooum, flowing through the heart of their city. These two rivers meander sluggishly through the city carrying sewage and dangerous pollutants. Besides these two rivers, there is the third one – the Kosasthalaiyar, which flows in the northern end of the city and not as polluted as the other two. These three rivers flow east towards the Bay of Bengal.
A river is considered dead when it is incapable of sustaining any form of life – fish or aquatic plants, in it. This happens when the pollution level in the river is so high that all the oxygen in the water is depleted.
The fresh water flowing through the Adyar and Cooum rivers are blocked upstream of the city and diverted to storage reservoirs for the city. The rivers also have sand bars blocking their mouth into the sea, thereby obstructing even the tidal flushing action from the sea.
The Tamil Nadu Government has been working for a long time to restore the three rivers and several other water bodies in Chennai. Large sums of money have been allotted for this purpose but the progress has been slow. In the recent years, the government created a trust to coordinate a more concerted effort in cleaning the water bodies in the city.
A trust for restoring the rivers and waterways
The Chennai River Restoration Trust (CRRT) coordinates the work between various government departments, such as the Public Works Department (PWD), the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (Chennai Metro Water), Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) and some NGOs who are involved in this project. To facilitate the activities of the trust, a special purpose vehicle (SPV) under the Companies Act, called Adyar Poonga, was formed.
In 2019, the government allocated Rs 23.70 billion and Rs 13.70 billion this year for restoring and cleaning water bodies in Tamil Nadu. The government expressed its concern over the amount of raw sewage flowing through the river and allocated this amount mainly to clean the drains which empty into the river. However, the enormity of the problem is often difficult to comprehend.
Over the past three decades, the Adyar has been used as a dumping site not only for building debris but for municipal as well as industrial waste. During the massive Chennai floods of 2015 the river was flushed clean. But once the flood waters subsided it got polluted again.
A river, estuary and creek
The Adyar starts its 42 km journey at Adhanur and winds its way through Thiruneermalai, Tambaram, Manapakkam, Alandur, Saidapet and finally empties itself out into the Bay of Bengal between San Thome beach in the north and Elliots beach in Chennai city.
What makes the Adyar riverine ecosystem unique is that there is an estuary and a creek. The Adyar estuary region stretches from Thiru Vi Ka Bridge to the river mouth and the creek from the San Thome Causeway to the river mouth spread over 358 acres. The Adyar creek is a backwater estuary at the mouth of the river formed by a sandbar at the mouth of the river and runs along the coast. It starts near the Chettinad Palace and stretches north; surrounding Quibble Island.
Early on, the authorities realised that cleaning efforts by well-intentioned citizens would be of no use as the problem was too deep and a scientific approach was needed. In 2006, the Tamil Nadu Government took cognisance of the problem and set up the Adyar Poonga Trust to protect and restore the three rivers, the Buckingham Canal and other water bodies in the city. The trust was later renamed as the Chennai River Restoration Trust (CRRT).