By Kartik Chandramouli

Venkatesh Kesav and his friends, equipped with gloves, spades, and dustbins, have a weekly ritual of cleaning a 10-acre pond in the Sholinganallur area in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu.

Kesav, part of the technical staff at an engineering college, is a citizen volunteer involved in maintaining and monitoring the Puducherry Keni Kulam pond, which was on its death bed not too long ago. The wetland was restored around a year ago and members of the local community have been maintaining it ever since. The revived pond is now back for use by the community in drought-prone Chennai – people wash clothes and utensils and bathe in it. “Now, when I see the kids swimming in it, I always feel like jumping in too,” said 50-year-old Kesav.

But the state of this wetland, squeezed between roads and residential buildings in Chennai’s IT corridor, was starkly different before it was restored. Care Earth Trust, a Chennai-based NGO that works on biodiversity conservation and particularly wetlands restoration, along with municipal authorities, corporates, and local groups, brought the pond back to life.

The water body was polluted with solid garbage and covered with a dense green layer of water hyacinth. The invasive plant rapidly grows and floats on the water surface, blocks sunlight and as a result kills other aquatic plants and organisms underwater.

Vasantha Raja, the project coordinator at Care Earth Trust, said, “Over two months, we collected around 180 tons of hyacinth using an excavator mounted on a floating barge. Now, the pond can breathe again.”

The restoration work which cost around rupees 1.43 millon (USD 20,000) over eight months from July 2018, temporarily saved the pond from deteriorating further. At the Care Earth office, Raja elaborated on the process of restoration while scrolling through project photographs. “The first step was to test the soil’s health. After removing the hyacinth, we desilted the pond to allow water percolation into the surface,” he said.

The team took the utmost care to avoid injuring or killing birds, fishes, reptiles, and amphibians while using the machines. Pausing to show images of native fishes and turtles recorded from the pond, Raja continued, “The bunds of the pond were strengthened, and it was systematically treated with enzyme solutions to improve the quality of water. The municipal authorities helped us plug the sewage inlets that made their way into the pond. Now, the color of the kulam (pond) is not black, and it doesn’t emit a bad odor.”

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In this photo: An excavator mounted on a floating barge removes water hyacinth that had covered a major portion of the pond and choked it. Image via Mongabay-India/ Care Earth Trust

Wetlands crucial for water availability and stopping land degradation

A wetland – lake, pond, reservoir, marsh, etc. – is an ecosystem that is saturated with water, either permanently or seasonally. It acts as a sponge and absorbs rain falling on the ground which would otherwise fall into drains and eventually end in the sea. Wetlands also support a wide range of biodiversity.

Jayshree Vencatesan, the non-profit’s managing trustee, said, “A wetland’s role is not limited to storing surface water. More importantly, they all also recharge the groundwater and ensure the availability of water. These are the areas that keep the terrain moist and wet. And a wet area absorbs more water just like a wet paintbrush can absorb more water than a dry brush.”

Wetlands play an essential role in climate change adaptation, as they can increase a region’s ability to deal with extreme weather events. They reduce the impact of water during floods and provide water during dry periods, both of which are a familiar story in this sixth-largest city of India. Peatlands, a form of wetland with a thick layer of organic soil, pack twice as much carbon as the world’s forest and help in climate change mitigation.

Vencatesan said, “Chennai earlier had 474 wetland complexes, each made of a large water body buffered by a number of smaller bodies. Reservoirs, lakes, ponds, canals, marshes, estuaries, creeks, tanks, minor irrigation tanks, temple tanks, open wells, were all part of it. They could be a mixture of natural, semi-natural, and man-made bodies. Most of them don’t exist now, and none of them is without human modifications.”

Illegal encroachments, untreated sewage inlets, garbage dumping, land reclamation, infrastructure and development projects have degraded more than 85% of these water bodies in Chennai over the last three decades. Puducherry Keni Kulam suffered the consequences of unchecked urbanisation and a rising population as well.

But during the acute water-shortage problem that struck the city of 4.64 million (the Chennai urban agglomeration had a population of 8.65 million, according to the 2011 Census) in June 2019, the pond was at full capacity. The impact of its restoration brought relief to the residents. Kesav, who witnessed this from his house that overlooks the pond, said, “Hundreds of people from this area and even some neighbouring areas came here to bathe and wash clothes and utensils. People couldn’t believe it when I posted it on social media!”

Highlighting the importance of conserving and restoring wetlands, large or small, Ritesh Kumar, Director at Wetlands International South Asia, said, “We have 770,000 wetlands in the country, of which 550,000 wetlands, that is more than 80%, are less than 2.5 hectares (approximately 6 acres). So, you know where the biggest scope of action lies.”

Wetland conservation and restoration are crucial not only to ensure water availability but also to stop land degradation. In early September 2019, at the 14th session of the Conference of Parties to United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), also known as COP14, the Indian government announced that 130 wetlands in the country will be restored in the next five years. Many other projects involving NGOs, corporates, municipal bodies, local groups, and communities also work towards reviving wetlands in Chennai.

Based on Vencatesan’s observation and experience in working in the field for over two decades, she said, “They (wetlands) have lost their natural character. Whatever restoration we do, we won’t be able to restore it 100 percent back to its original state.”

Kumar said that while lack of coordination among the various departments for governing wetlands, their exclusion from land-use records and improper classification as wastelands are major conservation challenges, the bottom-up action taken by citizen groups and local organisations is a positive sign.

After the restoration work ended, Care Earth Trust continues to reassess the lake at regular intervals. “Once you get into a large-scale restoration project, the job is forever,” said Vencatesan. It also harnessed community members’ dedication to maintain and monitor the pond for illegal water extraction and encroachments.

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Above photo: Venkatesh Kesav cleans the pond of solid garbage during one of his weekly maintenance activities after the restoration work ended. Image via Mongabay-India/ Venkatesh Kesav

Kesav, who assisted in the project since it commenced, receives a monthly honorarium through the non-profit to undertake cleaning and awareness drives, tree plantations, and other activities. “Some cynical people mock me or point out that the garbage returns no matter what we do. But I keep at it and post our work online. I hope it motivates people to participate in such activities,” he said.

Banner image: A community tree plantation drive at Puducherry Keni Kulam in Chennai after the restoration work of the pond was completed. Photo by Care Earth Trust.

This article was originally published on Mongabay.com.

Mongabay-India is an environmental science and conservation news service. This article has been republished under the Creative Commons licence.

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