Adayar Estuary: Restoration or Beautification?

Tamil Nadu government has spent over 600 million rupees (over 9,000,000 US dollars)  on Adayar estuary restoration, still the pollution continues, why? We’ll see…

Before we begin, let’s first see what an estuary is.
Estuary- a place where river or rivers flows into the sea. Estuaries are home to unique plants and animals that have adapted to brackish water—a mixture of fresh water that flows in and the salty sea water, and salinity level varies from time to time depending on low tides and high tides. They are nursery grounds and feeding grounds for various birds, animals, insects and other marine life forms, making them one of the most fertile ecosystems in the world. Also, they are source of livelihood and economical centres for the coastal communities.

Adayar estuary- an overview
Chennai Adayar estuary used to be one, flourishing with full of life. But now the water that drains in doesn’t bring nutrients anymore, instead has become alarmingly polluted just like its adjacent river Cooum. Once rich Adayar estuary has lost its charm and have become one of the most polluted rivers in the country.

Adayar estuary: Adayar River drains into the Bay of Bengal.
Alarming level of pollution at the Adayar river mouth

But how did this happened? Did anyone try to save it? Although the Tamil Nadu State government launched a restoration project, has it changed anything?

To find that, let’s first see how the estuary was before, how the river became polluted and what are the consequences….

Secretary of Ururkuppam fishing village Saravanan recalls how the river used to be and how the degradation took place:


Saravanan further stated that the fishing community is the most affected as their livelihood depends on the river and the sea. As the river is polluted, only the fishermen who have no means to invest in the sea, still fish in the river, but they risk fishing in the river during tides, despite the health and safety concerns.

A fisherman fishing in Adayar River during high tide (Photo courtesy: Gitika Gitanjali)


Other fishing community members too raised their concerns:

What the NGO’s have to say:
According to Citizen Civic Action Group (CAG), the Adayar creek was once the home of about 170 varieties of birds, several species of fish, and many forms of coastal and wetland vegetation. However, pollution caused by construction debris, plastic and raw sewage has dramatically degraded the richness of the estuary.
Tara Murali, who is one of the trustees of Citizen Civic Action Group (CAG) and a non-official member of the Madras High Court-appointed monitoring committee of CMDA (Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority), said that, Wetlands and marshes may not be beauteous sights in the eyes of many a city dweller. Due to the daily to and fro movements, the water is brownish and, when the wetland is partly dry, there could be the unpleasant smell of stagnant water.

She further stated that that, “The mangroves, reeds and bushes are not spectacular and the crustaceans and “creepy crawlies” are often viewed with disgust. Fisherfolk and marine specialists however know of the importance of the shallow waters of tidal creeks – where fish spawn and the young fish – the fry- feed.” Says .

She recalls that, Even till the late 1970’s fishing in small boats in the Creek was not an uncommon sight, indicating the unbroken links to the Adyar River and to the Bay of Bengal.

But from the early 1980s, abuse and misuse of this portion was clearly visible – raw sewage was allowed to flow into this area and it was also used as a landfill for construction debris. The channels connecting the Adyar River to the Creek as also the sea to the Creek were more or less blocked,

fishermen at adayar edited
Fishermen at the Adyar Estuary. (File photo- Taken by Mr. T.K. Ramkumar, one of the Trustees of CAG)

As the water extent in the Creek shrank, alongside the debris it was ‘prosopis juliflora’ (a non-native invasive species) that grew in abundance – a clear sign of degradation. Over the years, it is these bushes that became the nesting place for some bird species and perhaps in the imagination of the public, the real ecosystem of the place.

What happened then?
In 1985, WWF-India’s Tamil Nadu State Office submitted a proposal to the Government seeking the grant of a “Protected Area” status to the Adyar Creek and Estuary area. The Government, however, merely issued a “ban on hunting” notification which was in effect for ten years.

“Several requests and proposals of Citizen Civic Action Group (CAG) from 2001 to various Government departments asking if steps were being taken to restore the Adyar Creek and Estuary area elicited no proper response from any of the departments.” Mrs.Murali  recalls.

Here is a recap of what happened after 1985:

Nothing positive happened until 1993 and the river got degraded more and more.

1993 The State government of Tamil Nadu was planning to construct a memorial for Dr. Ambedkar on the Adyar creek; CAG filed a petition in the high court against the move.
1994 The Madras High Court ruled in CAG’s favour and directed that the construction of the memorial be restricted to a small part of the original plan and that the rest of the land by restored back to its original condition. The State government appealed against it, but lost before a Division Bench of the High Court in March 2001.

1997- A large multistoried residential complex was being constructed at the Adayar creek. The environment group tried to stop them, and even filed a case, but court ruled in favour of the buildings and the buildings came up.

2003- On 22 December 2003, the State Government allotted 58 acres of the area to the Corporation of Chennai to develop it into an eco-park modeled on Tezozomac of Mexico.

2005- The Tamil Nadu Government allotted INR 600 million for the project.

2006- The Tamil Nadu Government constituted the Adyar Poonga Trust.

2007- By the end of August, the Government announced that the restoration would extend to the entire Estuary and Creek, an    area of 357 acres and also announced an amount of Rs.100 crores for the restoration.

2008- The High Court allowed the Adyar Poonga Trust to proceed with the ecological restoration plan but directed the Trust to constitute a monitoring committee. In addition to Government representatives, it was to include one member from each of the three original petitioner groups and additionally, a well known expert on bio-diversity.

2010- 58 acres of the Adyar Estuary & Creek was “restored”.

The responsibilities of the Adyar Poonga Trust were later expanded to include several eco-restoration projects in the city, including river front developments and large parks and was renamed Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust (CRRT).

1. Crocodile statue (from left to right), 2.Clear water inside the Adayar poonga 3. Turtle paintings near the waterbody. 4. Map of Adayar poonga (Eco-park)

“When I saw the animal statues there, it made me wonder whether they have taken inspiration from Madame Tussauds as well!”, exclaimed an activist.

Some naturalists and bird watchers are happy that the birds like cormorant and darters have come in (not to the whole estuary, but just to the “project” area). These two bird species are worth mentioning because they stay in water bodies only when the water body healthy enough to provide them feed.

They feel that the place has transformed dramatically and the project is heading in the right direction.They also said that the water inside the eco-park has no foul smell, and is free of pollutants.

Cormorants at the Adayar poonga

But, that is not the complete picture.

The river mouth is polluted, so is the upstream.

These are accusation the environmental groups, CAG and other activists have made concerning the restoration project:

# The design of the eco-park bifurcated the site into a fresh water section and brackish water section, which reduced the brackish wetland to half its original size. In spite of protests, the Trust refused to change the design, claiming it was a temporary measure.

# The design did not uphold the judgement of the High Court to “remove the sands spread on the western side of the said five acre plot and restore the said area to its original position.”
Instead it proposed to use the debris and sand and created six metre  high mounds.

# The Trust took no steps at all to facilitate water spread and reconnect the channels to allow for freshwater movement to the sea and sea water inland claiming that this was beyond the scope of the project!

# The species of plants selected were not the littoral species of the coast but those of Tropical Dry evergreen project

# The Trust ensured that the illegal Karpagam Bridge was removed but replaced it with a pedestrian bridge –a concrete bridge that can be easily converted to allow cars.

Adayar poonga and its beautification

When contacted, the park officials refused to comment.

Apart from CAG, other activists and environmentalists also have criticised the restoration project as a mere beautification project.
The fishing community members say that there is no positive impact on the communities living there, rather people are only being evicted for beautification.



“The Tholkappia Poonga reflects the persistence and success of civil society organisations in preventing an ecologically important urban wetland from being taken over by the Government for other “developmental” purposes. It unfortunately also exemplifies the ‘quick-fix’ approach of Governments to fragile ecosystems indicating a complete lack of understanding of sustainable restoration. Worse, it also exemplifies the insincerity of the Government in implementing the spirit of the mandate of the High Court – an essential component of true democratic governance,” says Mrs.Tara Murali.

After Chennai Rains:

Recently Chennai had devastating rains and floods.  If these restoration projects were properly done, at least the impact of the recent rains and floods could have been avoided considerably!

At least now, the people and the government should wake up!

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One thought on “Adayar Estuary: Restoration or Beautification?

  1. Yvonne Egan

    All Governments throughout the World should be more concerned about pollution in our environment and waters. Environmentalists try their best to protect land and water, but it feels like they are fighting a losing battle. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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