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Chennai’s Chitlapakkam lake revival model holds key to fight water crisis

Volunteer organisation Chitlapakkam Rising, which had been pushing authorities to desilt the Chitlapakkam lake for the past three years will begin restoration work on the water body from June.

Written by Shivani Ramakrishnan | Chennai |
May 31, 2019 1:10:44 pm
lake Chitlapakkam lake in Chennai, Express Photo

Residents of Chitlapakkam lake, whose water was contaminated with sewage and plastic will soon bid adieu to their water crisis after Chitlapakkam Rising, a volunteer organisation was given the green signal by the Water Resources Department (WRD) on May 28 to desilt the lake, bringing an end to the 40-year-old crisis.

Ecstatic about their win, Govindaraj K (62), a volunteer at Chitlapakkam Rising told, “Initially, personnel from the Public Works Department (PWD) told us that they would begin desilting the lake by 2021, despite our reasoning that this summer was the best time to begin restoration since the water levels in the lake had reduced drastically. We then wrote a letter to the Executive Engineer of the WRD Department in Kancheepuram district who finally granted us permission to desilt the lake.”

Chitlapakkam Rising, formed in 2014, is a 5000-strong volunteer group that works on civic programmes such as cleaning up of roads and lakes, Right to Information (RTI) queries and monitors government projects. With a core team of 25 people, the group operates chiefly through Facebook, which is where news of the lake restoration drive was first shared.

Govindaraj, a native of Chitlapakkam who has been fighting for the restoration of the 100-year-old lake for years now and has been with the organization since inception said that the problem had begun 40 years ago after houses in Tambaram began emptying untreated sewage into the lake. “Back then, there were large swathes of agricultural land that were dependent on the lake for irrigation. Following the contamination, people sold their lands to builders without the approval of the PWD or the Pollution Control Board, unaware that this would encroach the lake which is the only source of groundwater replenishment”, he said.

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Another volunteer, Sunil Jayaram said that the crisis had peaked this summer with the city-wide drought. “After the floods in 2015, Chitlapakkam experienced water scarcity the next summer and this year, the situation has become grave since there is no groundwater even at 400 feet. Since the lake had not been desilted in 30 years, we began pushing for the project three years ago”, said Jayaram. He added that continuous encroachment and contamination had reduced the size of the lake, which was roughly 100 acres to 55 acres today.

“We intend to restore the lake to its original size”, said Jayaram, who has been with Chitlapakkam Rising since its inception.

Udayavani Dayanand, a volunteer for two years now said that the restoration of the lake was of utmost importance since borewells in the area had been depleted completely, leaving residents at the mercy of water tankers. “The lake used to be our main source of water, with groundwater being available at 5 feet itself. Now, the sewage in the lake has clogged the borewells, thus depleting groundwater and giving brackish water in the few borewells that are still working”, she said.

Govindaraj said that there was around 4 feet of sewage in the lake, a testament to the years of sewage being dumped into the lake by the Tambaram Municipal Corporation. “Now that the WRD has granted us permission to desilt our lake, authorities at Tambaram Municipal Corporation have promised to stop dumping waste into Chitlapakkam lake and have begun undertaking a project that will redirect treated sewage into the Adyar river instead”, he said.

Having been given a deadline of September 15 of this year, Jayaram said that they were in talks with experts, politicians, municipal authorities and NGOs with regards to the process, funding, manpower requirement and the time that will be needed to desilt the lake. “We will be able to decide all these once we launch the project which will be done this Sunday”, he said.

Although the WRD has finally given into the demands of the residents, most of them have mixed feelings about the decision. “Ideally, this project should have been undertaken by the PWD. Instead, we are being made to carry out the work. Given the water crisis in Chennai, we have decided to proceed with the project now lest we raise unnecessary questions and bring the project to a halt”, said Dayanand.

Since they have to clear around 4 feet of sewage and dig another 3 feet into the lake, Jayaram said that it could be another 3 years before the lake could be tapped for water. “We need to let the lake percolate itself for another three monsoons, thereby removing all traces of effluents and then conduct tests to check the quality before potable water from the lake can be used again”, said Jayaram.

Dayanand said that once the lake was restored, it will be able to store close to 2000 lakh litres of water. “This water can easily provide water 10 months a year for drinking and cooking purposes to the town of Chitlappakam”, she said.

Meanwhile, the 60,000 residents of Chitlapakkam will have to rely on water from water tankers and the proposed Madambakkam-Chitlapakkam drinking water project to quench their thirst until their beloved lake is given a fresh lease of life. The drinking water project is expected to provide 18 lakh litres of water a day to Chitlapakkam.

Chitlapakkam Rising will formally launch the project this Sunday at 7 am, a launch which several politicians, municipal authorities, NGOs and residents of the neighbouring towns are expected to join. The NGO also said that a Chitlapakkam Lake Protection Committee will be formed soon to execute the project and ensure that it is completed ahead of deadline.

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