Cleaner ponds, plastic-free lakes, clear irrigation canals… The COVID-19 pandemic has given waterbodies some breathing space
Twenty-five years ago, farmer AV Krishna Kumar would stop by Erode’s Kalingarayan Canal to wash his veshti in its pristine waters. He did not need soap. “The water was that clean,” remembers the 62-year-old. Today, for the first time since then, he finds his beloved canal, which irrigates 15,743 acres in the district, as clear as it was two decades ago. Textile and tannery processing industries, charged with discharging effluents into these waters, have been closed due to the lockdown. The story is similar in other parts of our country.
In Chennai, when you finally get to leave home, you will see an empty trash barrier on the Cooum near Napier Bridge; a spotless Perumbakkam lake; ducks waddling happily on emerald green wetlands at the Thirumazhisai Satellite Township. Clearly, our waterbodies are heaving a sigh of relief since their chief polluters — us — have been staying away from them.
J Ram Mohan, a civil engineer in Ambattur, stops to admire the clean ponds in his neighbourhood when he makes his grocery runs. “There are several where I live, these include the Pidari Ponniamman, Madhanakuppam, and Karuppan ponds,” says the 25-year-old who also volunteers to clean them. “Usually, they are filled with garbage; the Pidari Ponniamman pond, for instance, is inside the Ambattur Industrial Estate and industrial effluents mix with its waters — it is rarely clean.”
Ram says that he is thrilled to see the bird life the waterbodies attract. “Some of these ponds were used as dumping grounds. People walked to them with their garbage bins every day. What is sad is that I actually thought they were meant for garbage and did not even realise they were ponds for the longest time,” he adds. “Thanks to the lockdown, there is very little human activity around them. They have also filled up due to the rains last week, it’s refreshing to be surrounded by clear waters.”
The pandemic has clearly benefited our natural resources, bird, animal, and plant life. The endangered Ganges River Dolphin was seen frolicking in the now-pollution-free Ganges in Meerut; the quality of water in the Yamuna has improved. “Many waterways in the State are clean too,” says V Subramani of the Sabari Green Foundation, an NGO that has restored waterbodies across Tamil Nadu.
According to Arun Krishnamurthy, founder of Chennai-based Environmentalist Foundation of India, “Water quality of still waterbodies has not improved much in the city since domestic sewage continues to flow into the Cooum and Adyar rivers and their tributaries.” (There were also reports that Korattur and Ambattur lakes were recently contaminated with sewage.)
But he says that there are encouraging signs at the Mannivakkam and Karasangal lakes in Vandalur. “We saw a visible increase in bird population in them,” says the 33-year-old. “There are egrets, herons and kingfishers; but we were surprised to see painted storks too.” He also says that now, plastic waste in waterbodies has reduced drastically. “They are inching back to good condition and can improve further,” he adds.
Arun says that bunds are free of poultry waste, construction debris, and barber shop waste, which is usually dumped along the edges surreptitiously. Low air pollution levels have also improved water quality. “There is less of pollutant particle deposition on water,” he points out.
The smell of a river
His team is also seeing a “growth spurt” in the trees they planted in Pallikaranai and along OMR in October 2019. This, he says, can be attributed to the “reduction of the average temperature in urbanised heat pockets that are created due to trapping of hot air from sources such as vehicular traffic”. He adds, “They survived on drip-irrigation the past months, but the recent rains have also helped them.”
Dr S Venkatesh, a dentist who travels on the Adyar Bridge for work, is enjoying the smell of the river for the first time.
“I always keep my car windows open now,” he says, adding, “Perhaps this is because pollution levels outside are low.”
The best lesson that we can learn from the situation is that, “Nature can take care of herself,” Arun says. “We can now show our children what we have been showing them virtually all these years.”