Chennai's Retteri Lake is getting a new look, but residents say old problems remain

Residents want the government to urgently address the problem of sewage contamination and encroachments on the lake.
Restoration works at Retteri Lake as on June 12.
Restoration works at Retteri Lake as on June 12. Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan
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CWritten by Shobana Radhakrishnan

As the population of metropolitan cities like Chennai continues to grow, the government faces an uphill task — coming up with alternative solutions to provide drinking water for the city. While schemes such as desalination plants aim to meet water needs, the public seeks more natural and environment-friendly water sources. This is where Retteri Lake, one of the major lakes in Chennai, plays a pivotal role.

When Chennai faced a major drought in 2019, water from Retteri Lake was used to meet the shortfall in drinking water supply. The lake also remains a source of groundwater recharge for the neighbourhood. As the government plans to restore the Retteri Lake at a cost of Rs 43.19 crore and use it as a drinking water source, as much as 7 lakh cubic metres of silt is to be removed from the lake. This would increase the storage capacity from the existing 32 million cubic feet (mcft) to 45.13 mcft.

While this could be one of the solutions to the long-standing demand vs supply difference in the Chennai water supply system, the residents in the locality have raised concerns over the execution of the project. Encroachments and flow of sewage into the lake are major issues not yet addressed by the authorities.

What is the government doing in Retteri Lake?

The project is called the ‘Conversion of Madhavaram Retteri into a drinking water source by deepening the Bed and Providing Regulator arrangements and improvements to the foreshore area of Madhavaram Tank in Madhavaram Taluk of Chennai District.’ The project aims to turn the Retteri Lake into a reliable water source and an eco-restoration site. The total area of restoration is 400 acres as per the revenue records, say officials from the Water Resource Department (WRD).

Ongoing island construction works in Retteri Lake.
Ongoing island construction works in Retteri Lake.Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

As part of this project, the government intends to desilt and deepen the lake. The plan is to strengthen the bunds, repair the existing footpath, and construct a compound wall, and a new walkway on the lake bund on both sides of Grand Northern Trunk (GNT) Road. Further, four islands will also be made inside the lake to attract birds. Work will be undertaken for greening of the islands.

The footpath along the Retteri Lake, built in 2017, was damaged. It is to be reconstructed as part of the current project.
The footpath along the Retteri Lake, built in 2017, was damaged. It is to be reconstructed as part of the current project.Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

The specific components of the project can be seen in the tender document accessed and shared by Arappor Iyakkam.

People's concerns about the restoration project

“We welcome the project but the first problem we have is the lack of transparency from the government. Before floating the tender or coming up with the restoration plan, the government did not hold any public consultation meetings with us. We came to know about this project only through news sources,” says D Neelakannan, President of the Federation of Madhavaram Resident Welfare Associations.

While the old government records point out that Retteri was spread over 700 acres, different news reports mention different figures ranging from 350 acres to 450 acres. “Over the years we have lost close to 100 acres of the lake area to encroachments. However, there is no proper data on the current expanse of the lake in which the restoration works are to be carried out,” he adds.

RTI response from WRD on encroachments in Retteri Lake.
RTI response from WRD on encroachments in Retteri Lake.Pic courtesy: D Neelakannan

In response to the RTI filed by JMS Nagarajunan from the Alliance of Residents Welfare Associations, WRD has said that the revenue department has assessed encroachments in Retteri Lake and has identified 178 encroachers. The department has also issued a notice to these encroachers and has said that joint action would be taken by both the Revenue and police departments to evict them.

Buildings along the Retteri Lake have encroached on the lake area.
Buildings along the Retteri Lake have encroached on the lake area.Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

“If they want to increase the storage capacity of the lake, encroachments should be removed before starting the desilting work. While the encroachers continue to stay in the lake area, the government has already begun the restoration work in Retteri Lake,” says Neelakannan.

Highly polluted sewage water that comes from the Korattur/Ambattur Canal gets mixed at the Retteri Lake.
Highly polluted sewage water that comes from the Korattur/Ambattur Canal gets mixed at the Retteri Lake.Pic: Shobana Radhakrishnan

Contamination of the water

The second major issue in Retteri is the mixing of sewage with water in the lake. “The sewage that comes from the Korattur/Ambattur Canal is let out into Retteri Lake. This is highly polluted sewage water. Unless the government stops the sewage from contaminating the fresh water in Retteri Lake, there is no point in investing crores of money into this project,” notes Neelakannan.

Given the current status of the lakes in Chennai, desilting is alone not enough. Rather deepening of the lakes is important.

“According to the tender document, the government is not only planning to desilt but also deepen the Retteri Lake. This is a welcome move. However, to deepen the lake, they will have to remove a lot of soil from the lake and this soil is of high commercial value. The question here is how will the government ensure transparency regarding the amount of the sand removed and what they plan to do with the soil,” asks Harris Sultan SA, a water expert from Arappor Iyakkam.

He further adds that most of the funding goes into construction works like building footpaths and retaining walls. “We will know if the government has done anything to stop the sewage water from mixing with the fresh water in the Retteri Lake only after the project is executed as there is no mention about this in the tender,” he adds.

Response from WRD

Responding to these concerns, an official from WRD says that they have removed the commercial establishments that were encroaching on Retteri Lake and would remove the remaining 55 encroachments in two months. “Since these are residential buildings, there is a concern over law and order issues. Following the court directions, we will coordinate with the police department to remove the encroachments,” says the official, adding that they are planning to build the compound wall to prevent any future encroachments.

About the use of soil excavated from Retteri Lake, the official explains that they require around 8 lakh cubic metres of soil to build the islands. “The soil excavated from the lake will be used for the islands. If there are additional loads of soil left after that, it will be used in the low-lying areas for flood mitigation. If the government plans to sell the soil, then we will get a proposal ready for environmental clearance and follow the rules,” he adds.

Speaking on the issue of sewage water mixing with the Retteri Lake, the official says that the WRD has informed the Greater Chennai Corporation to address the issue as it falls under their jurisdiction.

The government plans to complete the project before the commencement of the Northeast Monsoon in Chennai.

What the community wants the government to do

  1. Share the restoration plan along with the map of Retteri Lake with the residents in the neighbourhood.

  2. Remove encroachments.

  3. Include the plan to stop sewage from contaminating Retteri Lake as part of the restoration project.

  4. Be transparent about the use of excavated sand as it holds high commercial value.

This article has been republished from Citizen Matters with their permission. The original article can be read here.

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