Category Archives: Coasts

IT and housing boom choke Chennai’s last marshland

Only a tenth of the original area of Pallikarani marsh is now left after Chennai's industry and housing boom

Only a tenth of the original area of Pallikarani marsh is now left after Chennai’s industry and housing boom


By L Ajith

CHENNAI: As construction and industry boom destroy a rare marshland that feeds groundwater sources and drains floodwaters in this sprawling south Indian commercial hub, conservationists are trying to save a tenth of its original area that is still left.

Located about 20 km south of Chennai city centre, Pallikkaranai marsh is the metro’s last remaining natural wetland, one of the rare ecosystems that India’s National Wetland Conservation and Management Programme (NWCMP) is trying to save.

After reclamation for housing, infotech industries and roads, the marshland has now shrunk to 6.9 square km from its 60 square km recorded in the 1960s.

As a result, now it is impossible to stream and drain flood waters into the marsh during heavy monsoon rains. Buildings, tarmacs and concrete spaces have not only replaced what once used to be wetland, but also flank its edges, preventing natural drainage. So the excess storm water inundates these spaces without seeping into the ground or draining into the wetland and then to the Bay of Bengal that lies adjacent to it. At the same time, without recharge of groundwater aquifers, Chennai and suburbs face severe drinking water shortage.

During the 2015 monsoon season, parts of Chennai were flooded and remained inundated for upto a month after and extreme rainfall events. Experts blamed the disaster on rampant, illegal and poorly designed construction.

Pallikkaranai marsh absorbs its share of water, but it is choked now. Due to dumping of waste and sewage, Pallikkaranai marsh is undergoing a character change besides shrinking to a tenth of its original size, as Dr. Jayashree Vencatesan of the Care Earth Trust explains. To prevent such ecosystem losses, conservation of forests, inland wetlands, and coastal and marine ecosystems need to be integrated into policy and planning, recommend Ritesh Sharma and Shantanu of Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity- India Initiative.

“The consequences of loss of Ecosystem and Biodiversity causes natural disasters like floods and droughts and shortage of crops, fish, and vegetables,” says Ravindra Singh of the German international development agency GIZ.

Wetlands not only prevents floods, but also protect the shoreline, and suck up and store carbon dioxide, thereby reducing greenhouse effect that leads to global warming. Pallikaranai marsh is special, as it hosts several rare, endangered or threatened species. It is home to over 100 species of fish and 136 species of birds, including migratory birds, as Singh notes.

A recent workshop of the Indo-German Biodiversity Programme in Chennai, Ashok Lavasa, IAS, Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change that sponsored the event said economic growth and conservation of natural capital should go hand in hand. Both are essential to protect ecosystem services that support human well-being and prosperity.

“India is one of the 17 mega-diverse countries in the world…With only 2.4% of the world’s geographical area, her 1.2 billion people co-exist with over 47,000 species of plants and 91,000 species of animals. Several among them are keystone and charismatic species,” as Lavasa points out. At the same time, the country supports one sixth of the world’s livestock population. In such a context, balancing the needs for now and for future is often a balancing act indeed.

Still, considering the seriousness of ecosystem losses and the hazard exposure, especially with uncertain and changing weather patterns, conservation needs to gain an upper hand in many cases. As Prof Saudamini Das of the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi, points out, coastal cities such as Kochi in Kerala or Kolkata and Mumbai that are built on reclaimed water bodies and mangroves are also possibly exposed to a future flash floods. These lessons and warnings should serve as wake up calls.



Rebuilding Kathiraveli

By Danesh Jayatilaka

in Kathiraveli, Batticaloa, SRI LANKA

Sunset in Kathiraveli village recovering from the Asian Tsunami and Sri Lankan conflict

Sunset in Kathiraveli, a village recovering from the Asian Tsunami and Sri Lankan conflict    Photo: Danesh Jayatilaka

People of this small coastal village in Batticaloa in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka know what it means to be caught between the devil and the deep sea. The 2004 Asian Tsunami devastated the village. Then their village became a flashpoint of Sri Lankan civil war that erupted once again in 2006 after a period of relative calm. For the 676 families here, mostly Tamil-speaking Hindus, a good part of the past nine years meant rebuilding lives and livelihoods destroyed by the disaster and then again by the conflict and forced migration. The accompanying photo feature is a snapshot of their story.

During the 2004 tsunami 56 people were killed and 225 families affected in Kathiraveli and nearby Puchchakerny. Most of the houses 300 to 400 meters from the sea were either damaged or destroyed by the wave, which the local people described as ‘a gigantic snake that came from the sea and went into the land, along the entire coast’. Around 136 families moved inland, especially to the newly formed Pudur village, while others were scattered inside Kathiraveli. In 2006 the conflict flared up and security forces started targeting the LTTE camps within the village. The village and the surrounding areas became a violent air, sea, and land battleground and the government requested the civilians to move into welfare camps situated in state-controlled areas.

When the LTTE was was defeated in the East in 2007 many people wanted to go back to their homes, and the government supported their return to the area. Witnessing the devastation of the village and their property was difficult for the returnees. Many of the houses were completely or partially destroyed. The government and donors then launched large reconstruction programmes to assist housing and livelihoods recovery in the area. These efforts took a number of years but were relatively successful as there was enough funding.

Five years on, houses have been rebuilt, and much of the livelihoods have been restored. The inhabitants went back to their occupations and/or found new ones. Many of the people got compensation for the losses suffered from the conflict as well as the tsunami – though there are some who did not get any. The challenge that people face now have nothing much to do with the war or the disaster, but it is all about improving livelihoods and giving a bright future for their children. Developmental and environmental woes have troubled the village ever since they came back. Life goes on peacefully here though ghosts of the past sometimes haunt the village.


[Danesh is a co-founder of the Centre for Migration Research and Development (CMRD) in Colombo]

 Link to the photo feature: