Which photo best describes Chennai?

India: Continue rowing in the sewer

An efficient solution is already being practiced in Chennai in southern India to end India's water crisis. But it is better to invest in questionable large-scale projects while the sewage rivers and cesspools expand

In front of me there is thick green grass as far as the eye can see. In addition, a sign from the nature conservation authority of Tamil Nadu indicates that no plastic is in the local area Pallikanarai- Throwing wetlands. But even the nose says that something stinks here.

A look to the left shows a sewer channeling a black slurry into the wetlands. The white dots in the distance aren't either Spot Bill Duckswhich, according to the nature conservation authority's sign, should be hidden in the grass, but high-rise buildings and factory buildings. Directly behind me, a sheet metal avalanche races on the four-lane Tambaram Main Road into the next traffic jam in the metropolis with a population of 10 million.

The is four kilometers further towards the city center Velachery Lake. A ring of houses around the lake suggests why its area has shrunk from 107 hectares to 20. It could still be a source of drinking water with millions of liters of fresh water, but a sewer drains its stinking broth into the lake.

Empty water reservoir

Chennai's wetlands used to stretch over 200 square kilometers. By 1980 they shrank moderately and still had an area of ​​186.3 km². Today they are only 15 percent of their former size, as a study by the CareEarth Trust shows. The main reasons are the boom in IT companies in southern Chennai and the growth of the real estate market in general.

"For more than two decades, scientists and environmentalists have been warning that Chennai is headed for a water disaster," said Dr. Avilash Roul dated Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) from Chennai. "But it only took the heavy floods in 2015 for those responsible to wake up." In the past, the wetlands with their lakes and tributaries would have absorbed a large part of the water and thus alleviated the damage caused by the floods. They also served as a water reservoir, explains Avilash.

However, this summer almost all of Chennais' natural and man-made reservoirs were empty. Also the one 235 kilometers away VeeranamLake, from which Chennai otherwise meets 35 percent of its water needs. The metropolis had to be supplied with trains full of drinking water from the neighboring state of Kerala.

Monsoons and fountains

"It is true that the summer monsoon came very late last year. Also that the north-east monsoon, which is more important for Chennai, was weak. But when the whole city is carelessly concreted over for years and the rainwater can no longer seep through the ground into the groundwater , the water crisis is a logical consequence, "concludes Avilash calmly.

There is a reason that his young colleague Akshaya Ayyangar is more optimistic: "I have only been working in Chennai for five years in water management and I can see that there has been progress since 2015." On the government side, too, there are now capable experts with whom she can work well. There is one main reason for the slow progress. "It's a coordination and communication problem," says the technologist.

At least 13 government agencies need to work together on water. One authority rarely knows what the other is doing.

Akshaya Ayyangar

Then Ayyangar mentions one of the many small problems: "Only about 10 percent of households in Chennai have a water meter." The result is wasted water.

But the young woman is immediately optimistic again and says with a wink: "By the way, we haven't had a water problem here in this quarter for years." Then she sends me two streets down to a gentleman who is responsible.

"But they come late," says Sekhar Raghavan from the organization Rain center welcoming. "The BBC was here in June." "Maybe I'll be the first to come before the next crisis," I reply. The answer is the laugh of someone who has been used to fighting windmills for 25 years without giving up. "Oh, there will be for sure, even if it doesn't become world news again," says Raghavan.

The current north-east monsoon brought more rain than last year, but it was still less than the average of previous years.

Sekhar Raghavan

Then Raghavan leads me to the yard of his landlord's house. "When this pipe is full, it means: The first rain has cleaned the roof terrace. Then the rainwater flows into the other pipe and from there into an underground 50,000-liter water tank."

But the rainwater collection system that Raghavan designed for the whole of Chennai two decades ago is even simpler. "Normally the rainwater would flow from the concrete floor of the yard onto the street and from there into the river." You can smell it from here.

Then Raghavan points to some large gullies and leads me to a well. "We collect the rainwater and pipe it into this well, from where it can seep into the groundwater." In front of a second well in the courtyard he says: "And here we can take the groundwater after it has of course been cleaned."

Finally, Raghavan explains why the water crisis in 2019 was completely unnecessary: ​​"After the water crises from 2001 to 2003, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayaram Jayalalithaa, also asked me for advice. Shortly afterwards, her government passed a comprehensive law on the storage of rainwater. "

It is better to invest money in large projects

There are several reasons for Raghavan that not much has happened since then: "The ministers around Jayalalithaa showed no interest because they had none of it themselves. Instead, money is invested in large projects such as desalination plants and dams." Another problem is that it rained excessively well after the 2003 crisis. "Apparently people first need a crisis to move," says Raghavan with a smile.

Jayaram Jayalalithaa wasn't the only one who asked Raghavan for advice. "Two years ago, Arvind Kejriwal asked me to solve Delhi's water crisis with a comprehensive rainwater collection system," he says.

But why the chief minister of the Union Territory of Delhi has made little progress so far - although New Delhi is also set to run out of groundwater this year - Raghavan suggests with a few boxing movements: "Arvind is too busy fighting with Narendra Modi '. " In Delhi, the responsibilities of the chief minister overlap with those of the central government of Modi.

There are solutions

One kilometer north, a picture that could also have come from Delhi, Kanpur or Mumbai: framed by new buildings, an athlete is rowing down a huge sewer into the sunset. The river on which a dozen rowing enthusiasts pursue their passion is called Adyar and at this time of the year consists almost entirely of sewage. Just like that Cooum River and the Buckingham Canal, both of which also flow through Chennai.

Sekhar Raghavan had pointed out that the black sludge of the Chennais rivers seeps into the groundwater. Gandhi Sooad, director of, describes that there have been solutions for this problem for years Waterneer, opposite Telepolis:

There are highly efficient water purification systems that treat the wastewater and immediately return it to the residents without first having to channel it into a sewer. These decentralized cleaning systems are available for single-family homes. For high-rise buildings or entire residential areas.

Sekhar Raghavan

But the Modi government prefers to plan 3,000 additional dams. In addition, new canals with a total length of 15,000 kilometers. These are to connect the 30 major rivers of India with each other in order to also supply the large cities with water. A proponent of this mega project is Mukesh Ambani, the owner of the group Reliance Industries Limitedwho has received a number of government contracts from Narendra Modi in recent years.

Dr. Gopal Krishna from Toxicwatch. "Just because natural rivers can be turned into an artificial network doesn't mean that you can simply move water from A to B as you can with containers," says Krishna.

Rivers are not just "things" in which water flows - they are part of the dynamics of the environment that surrounds them. Such a large-scale diversion of the rivers will do to parts of India what happened to the Aral Sea.

Gopal Krishna

An unexpected rain shower on a January morning shows who is suffering the most in Chennai: the poorest of the poor who sleep on the sidewalks. Dr. Gopal Krishna:

The growing financial inequality in the country is a serious problem. Whether air pollution or the lack of drinking water: The poorest are hit hardest.

Gopal Krishna

Of course, there is also upper-middle-class Chennai with luxury buildings, shopping centers and air-conditioned cafés, where the milk tea costs 190 rupees instead of 10. There, the wealthy can meet their own kind who proudly tell them that there are no slums in Chennai and that nobody has to sleep on the street. Even the $ 100 million Chennai Super Kings are often mentioned for having won the Indian Cricket Premier League three times.

An elegantly dressed elderly gentleman on the beach promenade at least let it be known that he knew about poor people in Chennai. "Our rivers are so dirty because the poor and uneducated dump their filth there and relieve themselves on the banks."

Something exemplary then reminded me of Germany: The government of Tamil Nadu has taken action against its dirty leather tanneries by tightening the environmental laws - they have now moved to Kolkata.

Chennai's leather manufacturing industry is now shopping in Bantala-Kolkata. There the government is promising 500,000 jobs / through the dirty leather business, even if the growth will come at the expense of their own wetlands. How did Dr. Six months ago, Avilash Roul, addressed to the government of West Bengal: "Learn from our mistakes and stop the destruction of the wetlands in Kolkata."

Chennai will get its water problem under control, that's for sure - the only question is how many more crises it will take to do this. It is just as certain that Kolkata will get its ecological meltdown, against which the "Chennai Crisis" is an entertaining children's birthday party.

It is also certain that the Avilahs, Ayyangars, Gopals, Raghavans and Sooads must not lose their courage and humor - the words "sustainability", "inequality" and "environmental protection" never fall on the head of any government or corporation.

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