World Wetlands day – 2nd February

What is a wetland?

“A land which is saturated with water, either permanently or seasonally such that it form a distinct ecosystem like a land or water ecosystem”, says Wiki.

Pallikaranai Wetland

Is it not hard to believe that Chennai and its suburbs alone have(or had) approximately 314(!!!) lakes, big and small, many of which concentrated on South East Chennai which has become the IT corridor of our state in last two decades. Not just lakes, Chennai was “once” a home to big wetlands.

Present lakes of Chennai and suburbs.

As per the findings, the built-up area of the city was 47.62sqkm in 1980, only 20%, while the wetlands were spread over 186.30sqkm (see maps). In 1991, the built-up area increased three-fold, 152.33sqkm, and almost equalled the wetland spread which in the 11 years had come down to 159.41sqkm.

The IT boom at the turn of the millennium triggered a construction boom in the southern parts of the city to accommodate offices; and to house techies the real estate business flourished in the vicinity. Over the years, the city expanded and outskirts like OMR and Perungudi transformed. As concrete replaced the shrublands and dry lake beds, the built-up area increased. In 2000, it was 250.58sqkm (68%) when compared to the 117.48sqkm of the wetlands. A decade later, the built-up area touched 402.10sqkm (85%) and the wetlands had shrunk to 71.05sqkm (15%).

( Type Chennai in the Search field, and see the scale of Urbanization)

1980 vs 2010

But, Why are these lakes and wetlands important anyway?

View of Chennai floods – 2015

Unless if we are not affected by amnesia, a flashback to 2015 December will help us to understand their importance. From ad-hoc urban planning to irresponsible littering that clogged the drainage to heavy rainfall than normal, there are various reasons put forward for the historic flooding of Chennai. But, the most important reason is that we blocked the years of natural pathway formed over years for the rainwater to flow.

A System of interconnected water bodies.

As we can see from the pic, water bodies are interconnected. Excess water from one body is fed as a source for the other via a Channel (ஓடை). An inherent buffer system to manage excess water flow in case of floods forming  an integral part of natural flood mitigating system and also acting as 1) a source to recharge ground water and 2) a water source in times of drought.  

An interesting and significant thing about Wetlands is that they act as a sponge absorbing as much water it can and also prevents sea water intrusion. As the constructions grew in Chennai and lakes went dry, we did not realize that we are encroaching and dumping concrete on these very channels and water bodies that served the above purposes.

Not only that, we started encroaching the pastoral land (ஏரி பொரம்போக்கு) before the lakes which acted as floodplains(வெள்ளச்சமவெளி) during rainy season. And when it rained a little excess than normal in 2015, we were devastated with the damages. It is not that we are not aware of the action and consequences, we just ignored the consequences. Complaining on the system and nature while having an irresponsible attitude towards the environment will only cost us later if not sooner.

The damage to water bodies not only affects us but also the ecosystem created by them over years. A wetland ecosystem is a home for number of birds, insects, snakes, etc. It is even reported that migratory birds are spotted in Chennai’s wetlands.( )

Greater Flamingos at Pallikaranai

A man is just a part of this ecosystem but he is acting like the ecosystem is a part of him, an unwanted part to be precise.

Kudimaramathu (குடிமராமத்து)  is an ancient practice in Tamil nadu, where the village people as a “community” joins to repair and preserve the water body which acted as a source for their economic activity.

As the economic activities based on that water body declined, the duty of preserving the same declined.

For example, For example, 1) Palmyra tree (பனை மரம்), the State tree of Tamilnadu have a great role in water management. Its parts such as bark as a fuel wood, leaves to make home vessels, fleshy sprouts (கிழங்கு ) as a nutritious food, fruit layers of the seed, water(நுங்கு) inside the kernel, sugar(பனங்கற்கண்டு) made from Palmyra tree to name a few. All these formed to constitute economic activities of cottage industries.  One can see Palmyra tree in the bunds of the lakes. (The interesting thing to note here is the roots of Palmyra tree goes deep into the soil and binds the lake bund intact. During storms only the bark portion falls down while the root holds the bund stronger. In case of floods, it makes sure the bund do not break. Unfortunately, Palmyra trees are rapidly cut down to be made as a fuelwood for brick klins)

Palmyra trees.

2) கோரைப்புல் (a type of grass, Cyperus rotundus) is used in cottage industries to produce products like sleeping mats, home vessels, etc.

When these industries associated with water bodies started declining, their participation in Kudimaramathu declined. To put in the words of Shwetha Narayanan, an Environmental activist, “As long as we attach an economic value to a landscape, this is bound to last. It was during the British rule that the marshlands were marked as waste lands because they did not see any economic value out of it. We have neither done anything to change that perception nor have we put an effort to understand why they are important. Now, all that we want is turn them into a real estate and make whatever money comes of it.” 

In the current context, as the communities are fast disintegrating, it becomes harder to preserve the water bodies. Communities such as “Apartment associations” are more interested in changing a water body as a boating club or park where they can reduce their accumulated sugar levels,fails to see the importance of the natural ecosystem. They are failing to see it as a flood mitigator, a habitat of wide range of species, source of ground water recharge.

If at least we cannot preserve, why pollute? Wetland becomes dumpland 😦

Putting aside encroachment, another major threat to the water bodies is the untreated household sewage draining into them. As a result the water becomes polluted and makes the water body not usable and a breeding ground of mosquitoes. The biggest irony is that these people in the “Lake view” apartments do not open their windows fearing the ‘bad smell’ and mosquito menace from the lakes. The biggest irony is that they buy ‘purified can water’ with the image of some pristine hills printed on its label, comes from the same lakes they are ignoring.


How to Kill a marshland? Says,Nityanand Jayaraman, city based Environmental activist.

What can we do?

  • All we have to do as a community is to check the water bodies from encroachments, littering if not for us at least for our next generations. And as a community repair and preserve the lake from time to time. And as a community, we can demand a proper functioning sewage water treatment plant from the government. All we have to do is not to dump, drain and litter the water bodies.
  • As we are in a time where not just people but also States, fighting for water in the streets, it is our duty to to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wild life, and to have compassion for living creatures according to Article 51A (g) of our constitution. Rights comes with duties.
  • Join our hands with NGOs like EFI, CTC or form your own groups and volunteer in their lake cleaing events.
  • Learning from our mistakes and other examples

Happy wetlands Day 🙂

Related articles to read:

Save the wetlands in the city

About Pallikaranai wetland

Pallikaranai flora and fauna

Pallikaranai – concrete jungle

Pallikaranai birds

Tamilnadu Wetland Atlas

Tamil nadu wetlands

Rain reigns in Chennai – 2015

Names of water bodies in Tamil nadu

Is your house standing on missing lakes in Chennai?

Why Adyar river flooded in 2015?