Chennai has recently experienced a water crisis. Four of its main reservoirs had run almost dry, leaving millions of people vulnerable. The city scrambled to truck in water while people suffered sweltering heat and long lines. Daily life, businesses, and dignity were interrupted. The past weeks have been horrible, but sadly, not completely unusual. The city has been plagued mercilessly over the years with tsunamis, floods, and drought.
However, when I visited Chennai last spring, I witnessed great potential. Chennai is a beautiful lake-filled city. The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organization, recently launched projects in India. Our group was there to listen and learn from residents as they told their challenges and dreams.
Our first stop was a colorful lakeside temple. There, we were gifted with a prayer ceremony and stories from a hearty group of volunteers who described diligent actions to keep “their” lake clean.
Then we stopped at Lake Sembakkam where The Nature Conservancy is partnering with the community on an ambitious clean up. There, we have removed invasive plants that displaced water, increased flows into the lake, and improved access for recreation.
Given the severity of recent conditions, you might ask, why lake restoration? Simply put, Chennai used to host 400 pristine lakes that provided clean water, stormwater absorption, and more. Massive urban development has cut off water flows into wetlands and lakes. Connections between Chennai’s lakes and the sea have been severed. Chennai is no longer water-resilient during everyday life, much less during times of disaster. Chennai’s natural resources, including lakes, offer essential solutions.
What more can we do in Chennai? A comprehensive vision for water security is overdue. We will act quickly to share model lake restoration plans with The Chennai Corporation that can improve fifty lakes and bring the project to scale. We will also engage the municipality and partners in developing a big-picture plan to help meet Chennai’s needs. Together, we will create an urban “greenprint” that can address water storage, infrastructure, stormwater runoff, and more.
Yes, Chennai is in crisis. But there is hope. We are encouraged by the city’s commitment to sustainability. We see a bright future in the new generation of conservationists like Nisha Priya Mani, a PhD scientist who works tirelessly in Chennai on behalf of The Nature Conservancy. Most of all, we are inspired by the people of Chennai, from the temple lake keepers to countless other volunteers who prove their love for their home. With a committed government, active citizens, and a greenprint that lays out specific steps for urban resilience, we can create powerful change in Chennai.
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Anita Nagpal Schwartz is the India Development Director for The Nature Conservancy whose mission is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. Our respected Chennai partners are the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and the Care Earth Trust.