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Death of an estuary

The dredging operation currently on in the Adyar estuary, Chennai, is a classic example of a fragile piece of natural heritage losing out to frenzied urbanisation, says S. THEODORE BASKARAN.

The Adyar...Gouging out the work of millennia.

The principal cause for the loss of species is the alteration of the ecosystem in which they live.

David W. Ehrenfeld in Conserving Life on Earth, 1972

WHAT is an estuary? It is the place where fresh river water meets brackish sea water creating a habitat that is midway between land and sea, where the ebb and flow of the tidal currents work on the soil in a timeless rhythm and make it a dynamic ecosystem. A breeding area for many aquatic life forms, it is also the feeding ground for a host of birds specially equipped to live in mud flats. This habitat is dominated by fine sedimentary material, brought into the estuary by the tidal flow, which forms the mud flats. With the constant change of salt and freshwater, it is never static.

Biologists point to the estuary as being the most productive habitat with numerous varieties of "small" life — frogs, molluscs and diatom. At the mouth of the estuary, a horseshoe shaped sand bar is formed, with the open side facing the river. This acts as a dam, creating a temporary lake during low tide. The characteristic feature of an estuary is its shallowness — just a few inches of water. During low tide, vast stretches of the riverbed are exposed and for the visiting birds, it is a gourmet restaurant, a distinct and fragile habitat created by eons of natural processes.

Nothing is more symbolic of our utter disregard for our natural heritage than the destruction of the Adyar estuary in Chennai. Most of the swampy areas and lakes of this city, such as the Spur tank and the Vyasarpadi lake, have been overwhelmed by the urban sprawl. But those wetlands were reclaimed when we did not know much about the awesome interconnections in environment, between the reclamation of lakes and water shortage. But the Adyar estuary survived, till recently. It is not just a bird refuge; it's an open space for the city, a wetland that takes care of your subterranean water table, and a unique geographical feature. It is one important dimension of the physical identity of the city.

Rich bird life that is not very obvious.

It has taken millennia to shape an estuary, in this case, in Adayar, and we have ruined it overnight by deciding to dredge it to facilitate boating. The islets and delta creeks on the western side of the Thiru.Vi.Ka bridge have already been cleared. Before long, it will be an urban wasteland. If it had been given protection as a sanctuary, it would have attracted more tourists — if that were the purpose — than a few boats would ever do. And we would have kept our heritage intact like Panaji, Goa, where the estuary right in the middle of the city is a bird sanctuary, attracting hordes of tourists.

Known also as the Chingelpet, the Adyar river's estuary once extended upto Foreshore Estate, encompassing Quibble Island at Santhome. Consisting of grassy islands, swampy stretches and mangrove-covered banks, the estuary was an incubator for aquatic life. It has been polluted for a long time. The massive laundry operations that began nearly a century ago near the Marmalong Bridge, industrial effluent upstream and the sewage of the city defiled the river. Still, the tidal dynamics keep the estuary habitable and the birds continue to come; though the numbers have reduced progressively in recent years.

In the wake of the Stockholm Conference of 1972, as the world was swept by an awareness of its natural heritage and the speed with which it was disappearing, certain bird enthusiasts in South Madras — R. Sukumar (who has made his reputation as Asia's elephant specialist), Selvakumar (who studied the Gaur in Mudumalai, Tamil Nadu) and Siddhardh Buch began looking at the Adyar estuary from the wrought-iron walkway of the old Elphinston bridge. They realised that the estuary offered a fascinating insight into the natural world for the city-dwellers and should be preserved. S. Jagadish, a student of a city college, (now a doctor with the RAF) studied the estuary for a science project in 1975. News of the astonishing bird wealth in the area spread. The Madras Naturalist Society, formed in 1978, was greatly concerned about the estuary and invited Salim Ali to see the spot for himself.

Efforts were on to declare it a sanctuary. The WWF-India and later INTACH backed this appeal. One of the objections was its proximity to the Chennai airport. This argument does not carry any weight for two reasons. One, most of the birds that pose a threat to the aircraft are highflying kites that live on offal; not the small waders that visit a marsh. Second, there are bird refuges close to airports in many parts of the world; immediately adjacent to the J.F. Kennedy airport in New York, separated only by a wire fence, is the Jamaica Bay Wildfowl refuge. However, a signboard came up near the Adyar estuary banning the trapping and the shooting of birds. That is as far as we got. But that did not change the legal status of the estuary in any way.

In the migratory season, waterfowl of different varieties, thousands of sandpipers and shanks and varieties of ducks flock to this feeding ground. Chennai-based ornithologist V. Shantharam, who has been watching the birds of the estuary for many years, says that at least 73 species of migratory birds visit this spot. The little stint, a tiny winter visitor, comes all the way from Eastern Europe and remains till the end of the March. The flock of tiny birds that fly across like a thin cloth being swept by wind over the bridge when you return home from work are sandpipers which are migrants from the pale Arctic region. The most visible bird is the black-winged stilt that comes in the thousands. These are the long-legged birds that stand silhouetted, like cardboard cut-outs, in the evening light. During winter 12 species of terns have been sighted here. I have observed flamingo here; they come from their breeding ground in the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. Many resident birds can also be spotted here like the yellow-wattle Lapwing or the common bee-eater. Rare plants like mangroves border the estuary. In fact, some remnants of these mangroves still persist on the Theosophical Society side. All this will be soon gone, making way for boats, if you please.

Whenever we think of tourism, two things seem to spring to our mind ... toy trains and boats. There was the instance of the toy train around the Kodaikanal lake in Tamil Nadu, dismantled later following a court decision, thanks to an alert and local NGO. And boats have appalling safety standards. I have not seen a boat in which life jackets are provided. Anyone who has visited our monuments and other tourist spots would tell you that what we need are conveniences such as clean toilets and polite employees.

The Adyar estuary is a textbook case of a fragile natural heritage losing out to frenzied urbanisation, a process that has happened in many cities. Of all the habitats, wetlands are particularly susceptible to such threats from the land-hungry. Still, there are instances in India where people have resisted such exploitation and averted long term loss to the city. In Mumbai, the Mahim creek was similarly threatened but a very articulate environment movement there prevented it. Right in the heart of Pune, the Mulla-Muktha bird sanctuary was established. In Delhi, NGOs went to court and redeemed the greenery of the Ridge. In Chennai the story has been different. This raises a larger question... why is there no environmental movement in Tamil Nadu?

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