The Heroes Utilizing Historical Information to Revive Chennai’s Water Ecosystem


Sekhar Raghavan’s story begins within the Nineties as a resident of Besant Nagar, Chennai. As builders paved driveways and compounds on this neighbourhood near the seashore, Sekhar observed that the extent of water within the shallow wells fell and have become brackish. Even borewells had been starting to run dry. 

As a resident of the world for the reason that 70s, Sekhar had valued easy accessibility to prime quality ingesting water. His 6-apartment advanced had its personal shallow effectively and water percolated simply by way of the sandy soils, all the time staying simply a few toes under the floor through the monsoons.  

With the good thing about remark and examine, he was satisfied that the change in water was because of the many new infrastructural developments which, in impact, sealed the soils. This made the water keep on the floor earlier than evaporating or reaching the ocean. 

The issue, in his view, could possibly be addressed by harvesting rainwater domestically, replenishing the aquifers that are each excessive up — utilizing the soil’s water-holding capability — and likewise deeper down within the rock crevices and caverns.

To herald extra public help, he started a door-to-door marketing campaign in 1995 to persuade the locals and the municipality that rainwater harvesting was very important. He promoted recharging the precious groundwater aquifers somewhat than solely utilizing concrete tanks to retailer rainwater as a result of with out replenishing them, they turned susceptible to seawater intrusion which could possibly be deadly to these water shops.

He argued for rising the permeability of strong surfaces — permitting water to percolate into the soil round new and outdated developments — supplying shallow wells, and enabling deeper aquifer recharge with rainwater to help borewell extraction. 

“That is how water was managed till the mid-Nineteenth century when Chennai largely relied on groundwater sourced by way of shallow wells,” Sekhar says.

An extended highway forward

At first, Sekhar’s concepts fell on deaf ears. When he tried to speak to residents, the safety guards turned him away. Curiously although, they appeared to have a greater understanding of the issue than their employers. 

The higher-off city inhabitants didn’t make the connection between rainwater percolation and groundwater, nor did they recognise the severity of the state of affairs. In any occasion, they noticed it because the Authorities’s responsibility to produce them with water.

Nevertheless, in 1998, he had a breakthrough – after 3 years of drought was Chennai’s ‘Floor Zero’ (when some went with out water for days). The editor of the Adyar Instances gave him area to put in writing an article and embody his cellphone quantity. 

The newspaper clipping of Sekhar's article. Credit: Sekhar Raghavan, Akash Ganga Rain Centre
The newspaper clipping of Sekhar’s article. Credit score: Sekhar Raghavan, Akash Ganga Rain Centre

He started to obtain questions from residents within the Adyar-Mylapore area looking for steering on implementing rainwater harvesting measures.

His efforts received impetus in 1994, when the then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalithaa, instructed the Chennai Metropolitan Improvement Authority to challenge a notification that required builders to point out what provisions had been being made for rainwater harvesting earlier than planning a brand new constructing.

The notification elevated consciousness of water conservation wants. Nevertheless, in line with Sekhar, hardly any builders built-in ample schemes. Enforcement was tough. Nevertheless, one of many few builders who did take discover helped develop a recharge effectively method for replenishing aquifers. 

This concerned diverting water from rooftops by way of pipes after which into the bottom by way of 15-foot-deep wells of a diameter of 5 toes.

Credit: Sekhar Raghavan
Credit score: Sekhar Raghavan

Within the mild of restricted impacts, Jayalalithaa continued to be dedicated to motion, strengthening the foundations in 2002-03 which required each new and outdated buildings to have recharge and rainwater harvesting methods compulsorily. This time, the brand new municipal requirement additionally acknowledged exactly what wanted to be executed – both divert rainwater into open wells or into the recharge wells. 

How the efforts solidified

Round this time, in 2002,  a US-based man named Ram Krishnan heard about Sekhar’s efforts and determined to again him. That’s how the Akash Ganga Belief was fashioned. Sekhar had been described as a lone crusader when interviewed by “All the way down to Earth” in 1998, however this was now to vary. 

He turned the primary trustee of the Belief and the director of the ‘Rain Centre’ that was initially established in Santhome. Now in Adyar, it’s a demonstration of what could be executed. He was happy to have the worth of the brand new centre recognised with the inauguration being attended by Jayalalithaa herself.

Credit: Sekhar Raghavan
‘Rain Centre’ being inaugurated by Jayalalithaa herself. Credit score: Sekhar Raghavan

Sekhar provides that the outcomes of the brand new municipal necessities quickly turned obvious. After an excellent monsoon in 2005, an Akash Ganga survey discovered that groundwater ranges went up by 20 toes. 

“My view is that rainwater harvesting shouldn’t be a bureaucratic or an instructional train however a folks’s train. That’s the reason the Akash Rainwater Belief runs the rain centre so everybody can be taught what could be executed,” says Sekhar.

The members of the Akash Ganga Trust. Credit: Sekhar Raghavan
The members of the Akash Ganga Belief. Credit score: Sekhar Raghavan

Drawing on town’s heritage

Nevertheless, persevering with water stress demanded extra in depth measures. To amplify the outcomes, supporting different cities was additionally turning into a should.

In 2018, the Metropolis of 1,000 Tanks Consortium was fashioned, its identify reflecting Chennai’s wealthy historical past of water administration. It aimed to pilot and probably scale methods this time, not just for harvesting rainwater, but in addition for recycling wastewater from sewage methods and purifying black & gray water utilizing “nature-based options”. 

How did the Metropolis of 1,000 Tanks come about? 

Sudheendra, an architect from Madras Terrace Architects, a agency centered on eco-friendly structure and executing city water initiatives which performed a key function in bringing about these modifications, explains. 

Following a worldwide initiative – Water as Leverage (WaL) for local weather resilient cities by Henk Ovink, Particular Envoy for Worldwide Water Affairs, Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Administration, a contest was introduced for pilots in 3 cities in 2017. 

Chennai, Khulna in Bangladesh and Semarang in Indonesia had been recognized pretty much as good cities to develop a mannequin to unravel the world’s urgent demand for water. A agency from the Netherlands, Ooze Architects, noticed the potential to scale up motion in Chennai. 

They knew in regards to the metropolis and had labored with Shilesh Hariharan from the identical agency as Sudheendra. They teamed up with a collective of architects and urbanists from the Netherlands & India, referred to as it Metropolis of 1,000 Tanks, and developed an revolutionary proposal to revive the historic 1000’s of tanks which had been initially current in and round Chennai. 

The varied multi-disciplinary staff included city designers, architects, engineers, in addition to ecologists, coverage researchers, engagement specialists, and cultural and educational establishments from OOZE Architects & Urbanists, Madras Terrace Architects, IIT Madras, Care Earth Belief, Eco Village Worldwide, Functionality Panorama, IRCDUC, Urayugal Social Welfare Belief, Rain Heart, Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Chennai, Chennai Resilience Centre, Paperman Basis.

The staff developed a method and a set of initiatives that supplied a holistic resolution to the issues of water shortage, floods and sanitation, figuring out the inter-relationship with the present method of planning or constructing cities. 

They performed a number of workshops and conferences working with WaL and the Authorities of Chennai.

The underlying message was that if all of the rainwater that falls on Chennai is captured then there will probably be adequate water, in truth greater than is required, to finish shortage. Nevertheless, as 80% of the rain falls in round October-December in about 20 days, capturing it somewhat than flooding town or squandering it to the ocean is tough. 

Because of this engagement, many authorities officers turned conscious of the necessity for a greater water administration system. Now, 50+ water our bodies in and round Chennai have since been restored by the Higher Chennai Company, Public Works Division and lots of different NGOs, some with funds collected from Company Social Duty budgets.

Recycling Water – Nature-based Options

The second resolution that the Metropolis of 1,000 Tanks advocated is extra radical but in addition part of Chennai’s heritage. That is higher administration of sewage wastewater, treating it in a decentralised method utilizing nature-based options as a substitute of sending it out into the ocean. 

Banana and Canna are glorious examples of crops which perform the therapy, guaranteeing the water can subsequently safely be allowed to infiltrate into the bottom.

Photo credit: Madras Terrace Architects
Picture credit score: Madras Terrace Architects

Recognising the potential, a pilot challenge was launched, funded principally by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Administration and contributions from the Goethe Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan Chennai and Wipro Basis. 

The scheme referred to as the Water Stability Pilot includes Little Flower Convent College for the Blind & Deaf. The staff discovered that the campus of the varsity had three principal water points: sewage overflow, floods throughout monsoons, and drought throughout summer time months. 

They got here up with a holistic method.

Photo Credit: Shot by Cynthia van Elk at Little Flower Convent in Aug 2023
Picture Credit score: Shot by Cynthia van Elk at Little Flower Convent in Aug 2023

Earlier than sending the waste water to the crops, a settler (or a septic tank) permits all sludge to build up for about 24 hours after which an anaerobic digestion system is used to deal with the sewage out of which, a secondary handled sort of water arises. It’s wealthy in vitamins – particularly nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which crops love and take up to develop. 

That is the place the principle component of the brand new type of wastewater therapy, referred to as constructed wetlands, come into play. These wetlands, albeit constructed, mimic pure wetlands reminiscent of marshlands that are important for retention, purification and infiltration of runoff floor water. 

Equally the handled water from these constructed wetlands is infiltrated within the floor within the neighbourhood which finally finds its method again into the aquifer. 

The outcomes of the pilot programme had been revealed in July 2023 and had been encouraging with the water high quality being good, higher than the usual required for discharging it into the backyard.This type of therapy (high quality of water let into the bottom) includes water discovering its method down by way of the layers of sand which signifies that the pure micro organism out there within the soil cleanse the water and restore it earlier than the water enters the native aquifer and thus the recharge is full. 

This varieties a closed loop system and subsequently permits self-sustaining communities by way of water to begin thriving. That is the premise for the way forward for water.

“The Water Stability challenge exhibits what WaL is all about, a game-changer method; people-centred and community-led fixing the world’s most urgent water challenges. The pioneer challenge in Chennai proves the worth of community-led, nature-based options’ by design, that may paved the way forward for upscaling and replicating – spreading from town and the Ganga basin to the world. We are able to even put the UN Water Motion Agenda into follow,” says Henk Ovink, first particular envoy for Worldwide Water Affairs of the Netherlands.

“We have now seen erratic unseasonal rainfalls, generally in extra of 100mm in a couple of hours and a number of occasions in a yr. Persons are starting to expertise the truth of local weather change and the notice of the necessity for higher water administration is excessive. Now’s the correct time for individuals who personal or handle land to spend money on water initiatives to make sure large-scale storage adequate to make sure the well-being of residents of town,” says Sudheendra.

Classes for the folks and policy-makers

Sudheendra feedback that in his view, the unique authorized modifications introduced by Jayalalithaa’s authorities had been impactful. 

“Although it was tough to implement this technique in particular person homes, all buildings (residential, business or instructional) constructed after this date have rainwater harvesting methods to some extent. A few of those that believed within the method put in rainwater harvesting systematically with underground sumps which retailer massive quantities of rainwater. This may be seen in Ramakrishna Mutt and Vivekananda Establishment in Mylapore which proudly show the system,” he says. 

Sudheeendra says that at the moment rainwater harvesting is regarded in Chennai as a fundamental inexperienced measure. Many newspapers have written in regards to the success in surmounting each the water scarcity and addressing flooding challenges by way of this widespread follow. 

He credit Sekhar for the function he performed and values his bore log of the rainwater harvesting methods he has suggested for, carried out or been part of, offering information that exhibits a bounce within the water desk seemingly associated to rainwater harvesting methods.

Diagram 1: Design promoted by Akash Ganga Rain Trust. Credit: Sekhar Raghavan
Diagram 1: Design promoted by Akash Ganga Rain Belief. Credit score: Sekhar Raghavan

These tales present what could be achieved on one’s personal and likewise as a collective. The outcomes are technological approaches in addition to societal engagement strategies which have the potential to be broadly used notably if backed by coverage at a metropolis or different degree.

Each Raghavan and Sudheendra are of the view that with some coverage nudges, these reasonably priced optimistic actions could be mainstreamed. Challenges stay; for instance, wastewater therapy by industries is already a authorized requirement, however permitting handled water for use to recharge the aquifers just isn’t regular. 

Nevertheless, as Sudheendra says, good coverage by itself won’t create change. Rules want each enforcement and buy-in. Architects, builders and the peculiar family should recognise the good thing about rising entry to native water provides. Securing water provide for a “dry day” as one may say is important. As these dry days grow to be ever extra frequent, with the intense climate ensuing from local weather change, holistic native motion is important.

Written by Maya De Souza and Edited by Padmashree Pande


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