The Cooum: With decades of sludge and sewage in its bed, it’s hard to imagine a sparkling river, with homes facing the waterfront, cafes and parks along the banks, shops lining the bridges, and ferries that will get people home quicker, bypassing clogged junctions. But that’s what deputy chief minister MK Stalin has set out to achieve. After announcing the formation of a Chennai River Authority to clean up the Cooum and other waterways, the state is set to embark on an ambitious ecological restoration project on Tuesday. It’s not too hard to find the river, even if you’re in an unfamiliar part of town. Its rank, dank odour precedes it and we follow an unpaved road into Gangai Amman Nagar. A family of pink and black pigs sleeps serenely on a bank of garbage, next to the carcass of a dead cousin. Sewage gushes out of a huge pipeline. The bed of the river is a jumble of plastic bags and discarded tyres; everything ultimately seems to find its way to the Cooum — plastic bowls, wires, slippers, mugs, bottles, clothing, a rusty tricycle. In the half-hour that we’re there, five tankers trundle down a makeshift bridge across the river and dump loads of raw sewage straight into the stream. A resident says it’s a regular affair. “The trucks come daily to dump waste from industries nearby. They don’t even wait to do it under the cover of darkness,” he adds. Further downstream, at Rail Nagar before Koyambedu, a group sifts through the rubble that a recent demolition drive has left. With the elevated expressway project taking off, encroachments on the banks are being removed. “Our colony will go next,” says Bharathi, who runs a tiny shop on the banks near Rail Nagar. Records available with the state public works department show that efforts to restore the waterway first began back in 1872 under the British. After Independence, chief minister C N Annadurai launched a ‘clean Cooum’ project at a cost of Rs 1.9 crore in the late 60s when M Karunanidhi was PWD minister. In 1973, when Karunanidhi was chief minister, he launched a boat service, the jetties of which still dot the riverfront. Crores have since gone down the Cooum drain with numerous panels, ministers and bureaucrats visiting the UK, US and Singapore to study rivers that have been cleaned up. “Plenty of money has been spent in the past decades on restoring the river but nothing has come of it. The issue is in selecting the right strategy,” says Suresh Babu, programme manager, Arghyam, a non-profit in the water sector. “Copying a western model will not work here. The primary difference between Singapore and Chennai is the density of population. We have five times the number of people as Singapore and we need to take their needs into account,” says Babu. The Cooum, primarily fed by discharge from tanks and water bodies, has seen a steady drop in freshwater over the years — another reason why it’s such a smelly sewer today. What really needs to be done is remove and reduce encroachments; restore water catchment areas around the city; stop sewage discharge and allow only treated water into the river. “If this is done, nature will take care of the rest,” says TK Ramkumar, an advocate with Exnora, who has studied the waterway for 20 years. Babu says there are 700-odd points where sewage flows straight into the river. According to one estimate, 93% of the pollution in the late-80s was caused by untreated sewage released into the river. “But to my knowledge not much has changed,” says Ramkumar. “The 1970s campaign to clean the river was a failure because government started dredging and de-sludging without stopping sewage inflows. De-sludging only caused more silt formation,” he says. Treatment of sewage is the key. “There can be no ‘beautification’ without revamping the sewerage system and ensuring that waste water is treated,” PT Krishnan of INTACH says. Treating sewage can also reduce the city’s water shortage if the endproduct is used by industries. “Metrowater says it treats 250 million litres a day (mld); industries need only about 150 mld. Desalinating seawater is three times more expensive than treating sewage,” says Ramkumar. But without accurate data on sewage inflows, it’s going to be hard to come up with the right strategy. “We don’t have data on waste water generated by the city,” says Babu. “Without that it’s unlikely that you can cut off the inflows. Government also needs to map catchment areas around the city and revive them so that the Cooum receives regular supply of freshwater.” Another issue is the many encroachments which have sprung up on the river’s banks as well as the bed. About 8,000 families live along the Cooum, and there are a number of shops, commercial buildings, complexes, and houses as well. “Encroachments should definitely be removed and new ones should not be allowed. Though it’s easy to blame the poor for the damage, studies have shown that less than one percent of the river’s pollution is caused by slums,” says Babu. Stalin to unveil project at Egmore .Deputy chief minister M K Stalin, who led a delegation to Singapore last month to study the transformation of the once-polluted Singapore river into a scenic waterway, will on Tuesday morning unveil the state government’s ambitious plan to clean up the Cooum on similar lines.According to official sources, Stalin will symbolically kick off the project by inspecting the river, which is one of the biggest eyesores of Chennai, at a spot in Egmore near the CMDA building. He will also hand over a stretch of land along the river to the Chennai Corporation which would develop it into a park. The stretch of land, running upto a kilometre, was recently cleared of encroachments and fenced to prevent encroachers from returning. The park, which will take up to five months to be built, will be in place only till the Cooum is cleaned up. “Once the river is cleaned up, the land will be open for commercial use,” the sources said. After inspecting the spot, Stalin will brief reporters about the project. Singapore took 10 years to clean up the Singapore river, which is 11 km long. Cooum, on the other hand, runs for 65 km, 18 km of which is in Chennai. The Cooum clean-up, if it works, could well be the next showpiece of the state government. River action plans in various parts of the country, including programmes to check the pollution in the Ganga and Yamuna have produced mixed results despite the magnitude of funding to back such schemes. Experts say the Cooum proposal stands a chance only if the government involves various municipal agencies right down to the panchayats in the areas surrounding Chennai city. The scheme may be part-funded by the World Bank and through the centre’s flagship infrastructure scheme, Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.
The river: The Cooum originates from near Kesavaram Anicut in neighbouring Tiruvallur district and flows through Chennai city before emptying into the Bay of Bengal.
Length of Cooum : 65 km (including 18km in the city)
According to studies, the river is 80% more polluted than treated sewage.
Fish could survive in the water for only 3 to 5 hours even after samples were diluted.
There are traces of heavy metals like copper and pesticides like endosulphan and lindane in it Cooum clean-up project: Cooum to be cleaned up on the lines of the once highly polluted and encroached-upon Singapore River, which was restored in 10 years A river authority headed by M K Stalin and comprising chief secretary and ministers and secretaries of slum clearance board and environment department to oversee the clean-up drive
Project cost : Rs 99 crore
No of families to be rehabilitated: 8,266