With Municipal Sewage Overwhelmed, Makeshift Pipes Channel Filth to the Sea

Chennai | 08/15/2013 9:15am
Shalini Umachandran | Informal City Dialogues

Marina Beach in Chennai. Photo credit: B A Raju

Chennai is known for its beaches. It has not only the world’s second longest beach, the Marina but also smaller, less crowded beaches further south at Besant Nagar, Tiruvanmiyur, Kottivakkam, Neelankarai and Palavakkam. It’s the kind of place people head to on weekends to relax, go on cheap dates, play and wet their feet in the sea.

And then there’s another use Chennai has for its coastline — as a receptacle for untreated sewage.

Many colonies along the coast release their untreated sewage straight into the sea. On the 20 kilometer coastline from Srinivasapuram on Marina Beach to Neelankarai further south are at least 10,000 households that discharge sewage through crude channels into the water. Not all of these are fishing hamlets and slums; many are upper- and middle-class waterfront neighborhoods whose residents have not yet received sewage connections from Metrowater, the city’s official water supply and sewerage board. Metrowater engineers provide an unofficial estimate of 50,000 to 100,000 liters of waste being sent into the ocean every day through these illegal channels.

In December, pollution and strange weather conditions caused snow like foam to form on Marina Beach in ever-sunny Chennai. Photo credit: B A Raju

Walking along the beach at night, as volunteers of Students’ Sea Turtle Conservation Network do during the Olive Ridley nesting season to protect the species, can involving jumping over many of these deep channels running down the sand to the sea carrying filthy water. It is marine species like these endangered turtles, as well as the hundreds of species of fish, crab and mollusks, that are affected by the informal sewage system.

“There are no drainage facilities in the fishing hamlets. Everything goes straight into the sea, and that impacts coastal flora and fauna,” says marine biologist T D Babu. He cites burrowing creatures like crabs, which thrive in the porous beach sand. “Sewage clogs the sand and changes the nature of the soil, so the place becomes unfit for such creatures,” he says. In addition, there are the predictable problems of groundwater and seawater pollution.

But the people living by the beach say they have no choice, and those in the villas don’t seem to care. On one end of Marina Beach is Srinivasapuram with about 3,000 huts and makeshift houses inhabited by fisherfolk. Off Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar are the fishing hamlets of Urur Kuppam and Odaikuppam, home to about 2,000 families each. In these older areas of the city, the sewage comes from slums and settlements overseen by the government’s Slum Clearance Board. The Slum Clearance Board says it’s Metrowater’s job to take care of the sewage; Metrowater, in turn, claims it’s the Slum Clearance Board’s responsibility. “So we dig channels and send the waste into the sea,” says Rajendran, who lives in Srinivasapuram. “Once a year or so, we hire an earthmover to deepen or clear the channel if it gets clogged.” The channels carry dirty water, filth, plastic bags, egg cartons, leftover rice — all the degradable and non-degradable waste that a household generates.

Besant Nagar beach on a weekend. Photo credit: B A Raju

Further down the coast are areas with sprawling beach houses, compact bungalows, and thatched huts, all of which were recently added to the corporation limits. That means Metrowater is obligated to now handle their sewage and water needs too, but the slow-moving agency has yet to lay pipelines in these areas. Even in the old city, only 98 percent has been covered and most of the lines are aged and leaky.

As long as these areas fall under the jurisdiction of local municipalities, they’re supposed to have septic tanks that collect their waste and call in tankers to clear the waste once a month. Though this rule still stands, the crude cement drains that lead to the beach are the popular method for circumventing this regulation. In some places the illegal setup has become institutionalized — in Palavakkam and Kottivakkam, localities which have their own beaches, for instance, cement drains from the colonies and fishing hamlets join one central outlet that leads to a ditch in the sand. “It’s always been like this,” says A Kannan, walking along the ditch. Fishing nets are piled nearby and children play on the beach. “It’s not just our waste — even the colonies send theirs to the sea,” says the fisherman. “If the government doesn’t do anything, what can we do?”

A grounded tanker ship on Besant Nagar beach in South Chennai. Photo credit: Vinoth Chandar

A Metrowater engineer says the sewage outlets are illegal and are encroachments on the public beach. “Metrowater is yet to lay a sewage network and the previous municipality was lax about enforcement so residents just took the easy way out,” he says.

Babu says that Metrowater sewage treatment plants don’t have the capacity to handle the 500 million liters of sewage the old zones of the city generate every day. “Treated and untreated sewage across the city are let out into the rivers, and eventually reach the sea,” he says. “There is no study on the effect of this on marine life, nor does Metrowater know how much sewage the entire city generates.”

Metrowater officials admit that they have no figures for the amount of sewage the newly added zones create, but quickly add that they’re planning to build a sewage treatment plant to handle 18 million liter of sewage a day. But while Metrowater, the Slum Clearance Board and the residents blame one another, raw sewage continues to contaminate the Indian Ocean.