Chennai rivers in ICU: Waterman sounds wake-up call for citizens

In Chennai to talk on river restoration at the DAMned ART festival organised by the Goethe Institut, Dr Rajendra Singh, popularly called the Waterman of India, repeatedly emphasized the role of citizens and community.

What are we leaving behind for the next generation? If our grandchildren were to question us on the kind of water, river or environment that we have created for them and if that was how we had received it from our previous generations, would you be guilt-ridden? These were some of the questions that hung over the audience, as the Waterman of India, Dr Rajendra Singh, questioned the interest levels of Chennaiites in restoring the city’s river bodies.

Dr Rajendra Singh was in the city to talk on Community and River Rejuvenation as part of the DAMned ART festival organised by the Goethe Institut.

Public art festivals still nascent in our city are a powerful medium to engage and open up dialogues with citizens on pressing issues that need coordinated effort. The DAMned ART festival at Lalit Kala Academy is a month-long public art festival that looks at lost rivers through the perspective of art, and also seeks to generate dialogues on ecology and sustainability. The festival organized as a part of the “Embrace our Rivers’ project by Goethe Institut has opened up discussions on water-related issues bringing in experts, artist and citizens together in a participatory forum.

Understand, love water

Elaborating on the innate sanctity that water has been associated with, he traced the history of India. India was a global teacher when its people knew that God lived not merely in temples or churches or mosques, but was all-pervasive. This innate love for God and the conviction to secure all elements of nature placed India ahead of others.

Having revived 11 rivers, Rajendra Singh’s solution for restoring river bodies in Chennai today is practical and achievable. He began his address before a packed audience at the Lalit Kala Academy saying “People of Chennai should be ready to restore and fight for the revival of the Cooum. Just as we want our blood to be pure, we should fight to keep our rivers intact.”

Water needs a fight or a confrontation in the current situation and that confrontation can come about only when we understand water. He reiterated that if the people of Chennai really loved the Adyar and the Cooum, it would be possible to restore and revive them. This, he remarked, was not merely an assertion but something that had been borne out by his experience.

Small steps make a difference, and he urged Chennaiites to take up the cause of one river at a time, dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to fight for it and tackle all issues from encroachment to pollution, and the result would soon be obvious. If the people of Chennai can achieve this, they would become a role model for the rest of the country.

Engaging community

Singh also shared his success behind restoring the Arwari river in Rajasthan. He said he first studied the pattern of the river and learnt that there were six natural aquifers.  He made small modifications in the aquifers for water to seep through and thus improved ground water recharge. Through indigeneous designs like this, his team has restored 11800 water bodies and recharged 250,000 wells.

He also narrated how the government was quick to use the opportunity to award fishing contracts. But the community came together to fight against the government and got the contract cancelled.

Community participation is thus key to restoring and maintaining rivers and water bodies. In this, Singh strongly feels that a River Parliament is an ideal solution. Rivers are for the people and it is the people who have to decide how to put it to use; a River Parliament imbibes a collective responsibility among the people to save and maintain the river bodies.

History can be changed, but geography takes time. If the people of Rajasthan, who are not blessed with rains like Chennai, could come together and make a change, he observed that people of Chennai could also definitely bring change. In his opinion, if we start now, he says it will take at least a decade to fully restore the Cooum, and that requires a plan.

Making a plan

Rajendra Singh also spelt out an actionable plan for like-minded people of Chennai to work on. “The river is in ICU and first and foremost it needs to be cleansed, the plastic and waste dumped in the water need to be removed,” he said.

He recommends identification of the stretches where the river is polluted to the maximum, and the grant of territorial responsibilities to the people surrounding these stretches, to ensure that the river is not abused any further.  It is also important that the indigenous knowledge of the experts are transferred to the community, responsibilities allocated and a movement created to rejuvenate the river.

A river literary movement is essential to understand the river, share knowledge and facts about it, as also the cultural identity associated with the river. This literacy needs to be spread among the student community and youth, who can be effective changemakers as well.

Singh also emphasized the importance of corporate houses and industrialists who have equal responsibility towards restoration.  If rivers don’t exist, we will cease to exist and therefore it is important to build voices in society for protection and conservation.

The citizens should also push electoral representatives, nudge them to work on restoration of rivers and convey that this performance will be a determinant in electoral decisions – whether or not they would be voting them back to power.

For all of this a collective responsibility and a well-mobilised community movement is essential. We need to engage and involve all stakeholders. Each stakeholder should bring his unique skill and put that to use to contribute to the river restoration project.

Sometimes adversities are a blessing in disguise. The Chennai floods of 2015 have indeed left a deep impact on many of us and have created a conducive environment for a deeper relook at our waterways. It will realistically take many years to reverse the damage caused, but coming together for an actionable solution is the starting point for any change to happen.


  1. Saravanan says:

    While i agree in totality with rajandra singhji, we need to understand certain facts.
    1. The main cause for couvam and adyar pollution is due to the letting out of secondary treated sewer in these rivers by cmwssb.
    2. There are illegal outlets that deliver untreated sewer and it is enumerated but no action.
    3. None of the govt dept owns the source. Neither pwd, nor cwmssb nor corporation own it.
    4. It is a typical urban case and we cannot compare with the arvari river revival which is a totally rural context.
    5. I dont mean it is not possible. It is but we need to ensure entitlements and rrsponsibipities.
    Else it will be another campaign like giving a missed call to save rivers!

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