The Buckingham canal in Chennai had the capacity to carry up to 5,600 cubic feet per second (cusecs) of water when it was intact. Had the integrated water system linking the canal and other rivers/waterways across Chennai been kept alive, it would have spared Chennai the crisis the historic city is facing today.

According to the Madras Gazette notification of 1801, the then British government wanted to build a canal from Ennore to Madras to ensure a navigable water system interlinking other streams. When completed, it ran parallel to the Coromandel coast from Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh to Villupuram in Tamil Nadu.

Canal navigation The rivers in spate wreaking havoc in Chennai today were originally gridlocked with the Buckingham canal. For instance, it had a link to the Cooum river and the Adayar river. As cited by Paul Hyland in his book Indian Balm, this had given impetus to business by 1890s, as the canal navigation was continuous via the Godavari and the Krishna systems and the Buckingham canal from 450 miles to some way south of Madras.

“But most significantly, the terrible sea-saw of extremes, floods and drought, death by drowning or famine was arrested,” says the book.

Volatile rainfall Arthur Cotton’s data on Madras also pointed out that the city needed better water management system for irrigation as well as to prevent floods caused by fluctuating rains. As per the data available since 1813 for Madras, in sixty four years, the annual rainfall fluctuated between 88.41 inches in 1827 and 18.45 inches in 1832. The year preceding the lowest fall had 44.35 inches while the year after had 37.11 inches.

This volatility in rainfall required the city to be better planned for water management which was provided by the Buckingham canal water system.

Loss of focus But this focus was lost subsequently with the lakes and tanks losing connectivity. In an article in its edition dated May 10, 1900, The Hindu said the tanks and lakes found in the country were too few and too shallow to hold any significant quantities of water.

After Independence, the disuse and decline of the Buckingham canal was rapid with encroachments and lack of maintenance. The national waterways project as proposed in 2006 and finalised in 2008 planned to develop a national waterway connecting many canals, including the Buckingham canal in the Kakinada–Puducherry stretch. However, nothing concrete has come out of this so far.

It remains to be seen if the present disaster will lead to a realisation of the need to preserve water systems.