(This is a guest post by Prithvi Mahadevan, who is taking the lead for the Chennai leg of our City Water Walks initiative.)
I was strolling on one of the beaches in Chennai, when Akshay got in touch with me and presented me with the wonderful idea of ‘City Water Walks’ and ‘Moving Upstream’. It all seemed bizarre to me then, as I thought it was only Chennai which had awakened to its waters due to the massive floods last year. As Akshay explained Veditum’s ‘Moving Upstream’ and Siddharth’s adventures, I realised how ‘water’ as an entity binds people along its course and this is a story that needs to be told, for all rivers and all water bodies. A story of our ultimate dependence on a life form which sustains us. But as 21st-century, city-dwelling humans, what have we done to this life form?
We live in an era where we are much disconnected from our environment; a compartmentalised world as it is, we see the exterior disjoint from our self. We have become the individualistic self-centered beings who have nothing to do with their environment or fellow humans who still trace their livelihood through these life forms. For us, water is just a resource. There is a famous story of a group of monkeys in a cage with a banana hanging and a stool below. Each time a monkey went up the ladder the cage was showered with water. With no time, any monkey which tried to reach out for the banana was hit by all other monkeys not knowing if the water will be showered every time. So, this became a tradition and every troop of monkeys after that followed it without questioning. Such is our case today as we have been following a system of governance set up by the British which does not respond to the context we live in. It is not our own and excludes the two most important stakeholders – the environment and the people of the environment.
Thus, the first step comes by questioning the existing. How many children do we see playing outside in streets today? How much do we know about our neighbours? How much do we know about our city, except for which mall is where? Do we know about the rivers and canals cutting across the city? Do we know the ecological character of our city? Do we know how much we contribute in polluting the rich reserves of our city? As disconnected as we are with our surroundings, we see the same in our daily choices. These choices of ours that have made us vulnerable to a disaster that could have been avoided: the floods.
As a Chennaite, I have tried to find the ecological hotspots in this dowdy city. Chennai, a city with summer all around the year, the capital and the soul of South India is known to have traffic, salty breeze and humidity. If one sees the ecological fabric of this city, we would see St. Thomas mount hillocks, the three major non-perennial rivers, Kosasthalaiyar River in the north draining into the Ennore creek, The Coovum forming an island inside the city called island grounds near the sea, The Adyar River draining into the sea through the Adyar estuary. These three major rivers are cut by a salt water tidal canal parallel to the coast. This canal is called the Buckingham Canal built by the British about 200 years ago which has evolved itself into the ecology of the city.
Other than the rivers and the canal there are a few smaller canals and a large number of lakes spread across the region which have been ‘developed’. The whole city of Chennai acts like a bowl collecting the surface drainage water from neighbouring high-lying areas such as Kanchipuram and Thiruvallur and drain it into the sea. When the bowl is encroached, it leads to excessive flooding. The city of Chennai was originally a set of small settlements interspersed between mangroves and mango forests with tigers moving about where the present day urban jungle thrives, thus, the city was a marshy land acting as a sponge to the southern coast. Reminiscences of these marshy land can be seen in the wetlands of Pallikarnai and Adyar Estuary. Adding to all this, there is the huge coastline with urban beaches like Marina, Besant Nagar and Kottivakkam. Unfortunately, these rivers have become drainage channels for the middle and upper middle class and a site for all kinds of nuisance for everyone squatting on its banks.
With such diverse ecological heritage, it seemed essential to let the people of Chennai know about its heritage and Chennai’s City Water Walks seems to be a great way of doing it. It is time to act and thus, the Chennai City Walks will also see initiatives to make know one’s city.
The walks in Chennai have two main agendas, one is to sensitize people to the rich ecological heritage that we are destroying through public audits and secondly to trace the various pollutants and degrading factors in the rivers and canals of the city through research study with college students.
Each City Water Walk in the above formats cannot be a one time affair but must be done multiple times to make people realise what they are losing.
The City Water Walks initiative aims to introduce the urban dweller to the basics of the local water infrastructure, affording an insight into where does water come from, what happens to it and where does it finally end up. Write to us at [email protected] if you’re interested in doing a Water Walk in your city.