With World Environment Day around the corner, a look at Chennai’s environmental indicators shows that there’s a lot of work to be done… DURGANAND BALSAVAR
The Copenhagen Summit brought to the fore complex issues of the impact of urbanisation on environment and ecology. The desire to create zero-carbon sustainable cities may be a distant goal. However, cities in South-East Asia experiencing rapid growth are broadening the planning process to address concerns of environmental degradation.
While Chennai may fare better than most other cities, its urban sprawl and growth demands more efficient urban systems to mitigate the adverse impact on its environment.
Groundwater depletion and contamination
Like most cities, experiencing rapid urbanisation, Chennai has to ensure its water security. A groundwater regulatory body has been envisaged to address issues of water quality, sustenance, recharge and availability in Chennai Metropolitan area. City planners surmise that Chennai has an unsustainable dependence on groundwater with over 80 per cent being extracted. This could result in both depletion of the quantity of groundwater as well as deterioration of quality due to the intrusion of sea-water into the aquifers.
If drinking water needs of the city are to be addressed, the catchment structures have to be restored and new reservoirs created. It is estimated that Chennai loses almost 40 thousand million cubic feet of water during the monsoon every year. The creation of catchment reservoirs could also reduce the extent of flooding in various residential localities of the city. The groundwater restoration programme would involve the active participation of schools and colleges and non-governmental organisations to create awareness on the wastage of water in the city.
Data from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board shows that â€˜respirable suspended particulate matter’ (RSPM) is rapidly increasing in both residential and commercial areas of Chennai. While 60 micrograms of RSPM per cubic meter is the permissible limit, T. Nagar has about 121 microgram. Exhaust from buses and cars and pollution from ongoing construction works are some of the contributors to the increasing pollution. With better urban transport systems and the completion of the metro-lines and the abnormal increase in the price of petrol, transport planners envisage a reduction in private cars, which could also contain the pollution in the long term.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimates noise levels in Chennai to be over 100 dB. The average noise level in Chennai is much higher at more than 129 decibels, while the permissible limit is 85 dB fixed by the World Health Organisation. In fact, noise levels in all major Indian cities are beyond permissible limits. Several cities hope to initiate tree planting as a measure to mitigate the noise as well as create stringent checks on street microphones and car horns. A few years back, Sheela Rani Chunkath, then chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had initiated a drive against noise pollution, including cooperating with the MTC to refrain from using air-horns.
The Clean River Project
In December 2009, the State Government formed the Chennai River Authority to clean and restore the 72-km stretch of the Cooum over the next decade. A few years ago, torrential rains had naturally cleaned the rivers with egrets and migratory birds flocking to them. Besides a cleaning drive, the government has recognised that it has to initiate schemes to phase out effluents and sewage discharge into the river. At present, the city corporation has been on a drive to create awareness among settlements along the river to refrain from dumping garbage into the Cooum. The restoration of the Adyar estuary by the Pichandikulam Trust has begun to draw school children back to Nature and, in the long term, will hopefully provide information on the ecological role of the two urban rivers.
Garbage and e-waste
Dr. Adrian Parr’s book Hijacking Sustainability (MIT Press), highlights the adverse impact of urban waste. While the garbage collection system of Chennai is recognised as one of the best in the country, it is imperative to modernise the dump yards (at Perungudi and Kodungaiyur) and set up composting plants and power plants based on waste. In several neighbourhoods, segregating waste into biodegradable and recyclable materials has brought down considerably the quantity of garbage disposed. Chennai produces almost 3,500 tonnes of waste a day. Chennai also requires initiating more efficient systems to manage its e-waste. If handled unscientifically, e-waste can pollute soil and water resources and pollute the air or explode if burned.
Reducing urban heat
Much of the efforts of cities in South-East Asia are focused on reducing urban heat in the context of global warming. Scientific studies in ensuring the flow of sea-breeze into the city and tree-planting drives have been initiated. The Forest Department in collaboration with the Chennai Corporation envisages increasing the tree cover in the city from the present five per cent to almost 10 per cent. The increase of tree cover could not only reduce the heat in the street but also restore the bio-diversity of the city. Urban ecological conservation is imperative and no more an issue of choice.
Durganand Balsavar is the Principal architect of Artes-human settlements development collaborative, Chennai.
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