A riverine tragedy foretold

Sandhya Ravishankar | Updated on March 10, 2018

Enfeebled: Residents, mainly fisherfolk, in the villages near Ennore Creek in north Chennai blame the fly ash from the region’s three thermal power plants for a host of respiratory ailments Image: Sandhya Ravishankar

Effluents from factories in the area being let directly into the Buckingham Canal and the Kosasthalaiyar river Image: Sandhya Ravishankar

Fly ash deposits have reduced the depth of the Kosasthalaiyar river to 1-3 ft from 15 ft Image: Sandhya Ravishankar

Why the declining health of the Kosasthalaiyar — the largest river draining Chennai — bodes ill for all of south India

There are remarkably few boats skimming along the Buckingham Canal under the hot, almost-summer sun. The Ennore Creek is to the right of a strip of mangroves, and the Buckingham Canal to the left. Joined like a third finger is the mighty Kosasthalaiyar, the largest of the three rivers that drain Chennai.

The smell is nauseating as we stand on a road that’s under construction using fly ash from the thermal power companies abutting the Kosasthalaiyar and Ennore Creek.

When completed, the road will link the two banks of the river. The water is black and teeming with garbage as it slowly winds its way to empty into the Bay of Bengal. Buckingham Canal — built by the British in 1806 to bring drinking water to Chennai — now flows with only sewage.

A fishing boat comes up, having caught sight of visitors. “Patrikaiyaalaraa (are you a journalist)?” the fisherman asks astutely. A ‘yes’ elicits a flurry of action. The 40-something man rummages in his woefully empty fishing net, pulls out a tiny prawn and points to a black section near its head.

“No one wants to buy this prawn. It makes them sick. The prawn eats the pollutants from the water and has accumulated them in its head,” he says angrily.

We learn that his name is K Thirunavukkarasu and he is the head of the Sivanpadai fishing village nearby. Returning the prawn carefully to his net, he continues, “I have been fishing since 3 am, for all of eight hours. All I have caught is 1.5 kg of this prawn. Two years ago I would have got 10-15 kilos by this time.” This catch will fetch him ₹300 in the market, if it sells, that is. And that’s barely enough to make ends meet.

“It is the same with the fish here,” 50-year-old R Ravichandran, another fisherman from Thirunavukkarasu’s village, chimes in. “For two-three years now, few people have bought Ennore fish. Earlier we used to make ₹1,000 a day. Now we are lucky to make ₹200.”

Destruction of a river

About 136 km long, the Kosasthalaiyar river originates in Thiruvallur district, north of Chennai, and feeds the Poondy reservoir before joining the Ennore Creek and draining into the Bay of Bengal. Along the way it feeds another 200 lakes and ponds. Nearly 250 metres at its widest point, and with a catchment area of 3,757 sq km (source: Tamil Nadu Public Works Department), the Kosasthalaiyar is being destroyed in innumerable ways.

North Chennai — an industrial hub with chemical factories, fertiliser plants and petroleum units — empties effluents directly into the river.

Last year, non-profit Coastal Resource Centre held public meetings and analysed water samples from the Ennore Creek. Independent lab analyses showed that the region’s three thermal power stations — Vallur, Ennore and North Chennai — were dumping toxic fly ash into the river. “Oily effluents” were found deposited on the mangroves and the riverbed, and this is blamed for the falling fish numbers.

S Janakarajan, water resources expert and professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies says that apart from fish kill, the fly ash in the air has resulted in respiratory ailments among the residents, especially children. And there are other problems in the making too. “The Ennore Creek is a very important marine ecosystem because it is the point where freshwater from the Kosasthalaiyar and Buckingham Canal mixes with the saline water of the sea. When this delicate marine ecosystem is disturbed, there is a danger of the sea coming inland. In fact, when we visited the area, we could see that the sea is invading Chennai,” he says.

The findings of a 2013 study by Anna University, in association with the Aquaculture Foundation of India and Coimbatore’s PSG College of Arts and Sciences, were grim. Marine organisms in the creek were found to contain high levels of heavy metal such as mercury, arsenic, chromium, cadmium, lead and zinc, among others. The report called for safe disposal of domestic sewage, and industrial effluents and, where possible, recycling to prevent heavy metal and other contaminants from entering the marine environment. Besides enforcing the laws that are in place to protect the marine environment, the report recommended that upstream activities should be strictly monitored, as any rise in population will lead to an increase in the discharge of heavy metal.

The fishermen in the area, seemingly, are already experiencing the toxic effects of these chemicals. Many of them show signs of skin infection. Young boys continue to play in the water with abandon, and pay the price for it. “Our children have scabs all over the body,” says 42-year-old K Veeramani of Sivanpadai village. “Our feet are itchy and scaly,” he adds.

Clogging the riverbed

Our boat ventures into the concrete-like water even as a salty wind whips about us. Suddenly the water clears, turning blue further inward into the Kosasthalaiyar, and silver glints everywhere. “That is paravai,” grins A Venkatesh, a 35-year-old fisherman from Mugatdwarakuppam village. The tiny silver fish appear to fly over the water as they leap in and out of it. They accompany us in their thousands as our boat heads towards the thermal power stations. The Kosasthalaiyar is wide here, and the waters calm.

As we near the power stations, an incredible sight greets us — a buffalo standing bang in the middle of the river. Venkatesh grins some more. “Wait another minute and I will show you,” he says cryptically. Almost in the centre of the river, the boat stops.

“It will go no further,” Venkatesh declares. “You can get down now.”

The Kosasthalaiyar is barely a foot-deep here. Our feet sink into soft, grey slush. “When I was a child, we could not stand here,” says Venkatesh. “The river was about 15 ft deep. Now it is hardly one-two ft, due to ash deposits from the power stations.”

Wading into the ash-filled river, one can’t help but notice that there is no life in the few remaining mangroves near the power stations. “This whole area is a wetland,” Venkatesh points out. “There used to be so many birds in different colours... they don’t come now.”

The contrast is especially stark when compared with the less-polluted parts of the riverbank. The tiny red-and-yellow ‘Dhobika nandu’ crabs that were ploughing busily into the sand near the cleaner areas are missing near the power stations. “They are called Dhobika because they move their claws like a dhobi beating clothes,” Venkatesh says with a laugh.

But the pollution and obstructions in the Kosasthalaiyar are no minor matter. Experts say that the pollution and the flooding of the river are interlinked — when there is solid waste and blocks in the river, even a small rain would cause it to severely flood the surroundings. “In a sense, this river is critical to Chennai’s hydrological security,” says environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman. “Any mistakes you make on this river could mean repercussions in the entire southern region — because this river can flood the CPCL (Chennai Petroleum Corporation Ltd), a critical refinery that supplies the whole of south India with petro products.”

Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board officials declined to comment on record. However, they said that industrial effluents were being monitored at regular intervals and everything was in order. As for the fly ash siltation of the river, an official said, “Actually, the power stations collect the fly ash and send it to the cement factories nearby for use. But sometimes, maybe some ash gets mixed in the water and goes into the river.”

Officials at the public works department could not be reached for comment. But the department’s internal reports in the wake of the 2015 floods point to the government’s eagerness to put in place flood-prevention measures rather than clean up the river and ensure safe drinking water and seafood for Chennai. The saving grace, however, is that the department admits that untreated sewage effluents are being let into the river and solid waste dumped in the Kosasthalaiyar, and this “blocks culverts and canals”. It also notes that there is “deposition of hazardous heavy sludge in swamps, backwater and urban water bodies.” “Money,” as a senior PWD official said, “is in plenty. But is there will?” Whether there is will or not, for the Tamil Nadu government, time is certainly not on its side now.

Sandhya Ravishankar is an independent Chennai-based journalist with The Lede

Published on April 07, 2017

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