Friday, 11 August 2017

Rivers, waterfront and public spaces

Waal is a mighty river. It gets its water all the way from Switzerland, through the industrial heartland of Germany. As the river Rhine crosses from Germany to the Netherlands, it breaks into two. The bigger and broader one is called Waal, as it passes Nijmegen, the city in the Dutch side of the border and more than 100 km later joins the North Sea.

River Waal takes a turn at Nijmegen. It also faces a constriction. Mighty rivers do not like bottlenecks. Thus at the point the river used to flood frequently. The Dutch Government and the city of Nijmegen decided to make more room for the room for the river. They dug a parallel channel on the inner side of the curve.
The new channel parallel to River Waal has public spaces built along its banks.

This was not easy though. The difficulty was not a technical one for the Dutch who had otherwise mastered the art of flood control and built a network of dykes, but to get social acceptability for the project. Andrea Voskens, who was the stakeholder manager for the project since its inception, says that with different people having different interests it took six years for the project to materialise from the drawing board.

Swimming in River Waal.

Interestingly, the people of Nijmegen also found uses for the river front system that the project had not planned for. They use the bridge for diving into the river, avoiding the lounge chairs that were specially designed for them to soak the sun.

Closer home in Chennai, the story of a river flooding because of its sides being hemmed in is not a new one. When from November 8 to December 4, 2015, rains came in five heavy bouts, the Adayar river could take no more. It flooded deep into the city. However, what had constricted the Adayar was unplanned development and not a natural cause.

Unlike in the case with Waal, the Adayar flood had happened because the people of Chennai had systematically turned their back to the river, rather than face it and live with it. How the water of a river or lake, and the waterfront is built into public spaces is an important first step in its conservation. When people of a city look at the river and spend time on its banks, they build links to it. When they turn their back to it, the river becomes a drain.

This statement is more or less true, but not universally so. Ganga is deeply ingrained in the Indian consciousness and lives, but still remains polluted. But the point here is that there have at least been Ganga action plans (though in the recent case it has been more on rhetoric and less on action). 

Yamuna, interestingly, though equally mentioned in social history, did not evoke much interaction. As a result, Delhi had turned Yamuna into a drain long ago. In Chennai, there have been many plans in the past to clean the Adayar and Cooum rivers. They have mostly been engineering exercises that had a minimum impact.

Not very far away from Chennai city, the Palar river goes deeper into people’s consciousness. It is even so today, when Palar is dry most parts of the year, and carries water only when it rains. Possibly, one time in history, Palar had a far more copious flow than it has today, and people’s lives were intertwined with its water. The Pallava empire, which flourished between the Sixth and the Ninth Century AD, would have drawn its sustenance from its copious flow. Otherwise Kancheepuram would not have grown into a city of such historical importance that there was no visitor, in the halcyon days of the empire, who did not pass the region without visiting the city.

Chennai, on the other hand, grew along the sea. The British part of the present-day city started in 1639 as a trading and military-administrative enclave. The colonial inhabitation was in and around Fort St. George. The Indian villages were in different parts, but with no special preference for the rivers. They were happy with their proximity to the local lakes, and also the sea.

This preference is seen even today – the only two important public spaces relating to water are the Marina and Elliots beaches. In fact, these two beaches are among the only public spaces that the city has today. The scarcity and people’s yearning for public spaces is so severe in Chennai that when the government-owned Aavin started a few ice cream parlours with small parks around, the local residents rush to these spots in the evening to catch the breeze.

Lakes and the other enclosed water bodies, however, disappeared from the public consciousness, and gradually got built over. Thus the end-2015 flood was as much along the non-existent lakes as along the rivers.

The rivers also were not perennial, coming from drier hills and supported by small catchments. After the reservoirs were built upstream to tap the river water for supply to the city, they dried even before they entered the city. When the ungrateful city turned their backs to the Adayar and Cooum, they became drains.

Chennai has to turn its face to the Adayar and Cooum rivers, for them to come back to life. It is not enough to have technological solutions to deal with their pollution. Yes, those interventions are necessary. But they by themselves cannot give sustainability to river restoration. Just as how the residents of Surat realised the importance of keeping their city clean after the Plague epidemic, Adayar and Cooum will come back to life only when Chennai residents find resonance with them.

It is here that the importance of public spaces comes in. When public spaces are designed and built along the rivers, people will interact with them. Art installations, museums, parks, street food and recreation bring people to the waterfront. They slow down and appreciate the sights, sounds, smells and the breeze on the face. They will have a stake in keeping the river clean.

In Hamburg there is a museum that commemorates the history of the city’s water supply and waste disposal systems. Set under an old water tower, it tells the story of how lives of the people in the second biggest German city changed when water started coming into people’s households. A well-curated museum can change people’s understanding; also perspective.

A river can soothe the jackboot rhythm. Militarism can also disturb a river. Thus, during the Cold War years, Spree flowing through Berlin did not have people turning their face to it. It was too close to the Berlin Wall, and the emotion it evoked was of trauma and fear. It is said that before World War II, this very river had many public swimming pools on its banks.
River Spree flowing through Berlin.

As an aspiring, young and impatient India grows, its public spaces are getting co-opted for development projects. Even the spaces that remain are losing their public nature, with restrictions being put on what they can be used for. There are less real meetings between individuals and more virtual meetings on social media.

When aspirations are not met – partially or wholly – there is frustration, anger and violence. In public spaces along water bodies, these negative energies can be dissipated constructively. Nuance will return to our understanding and articulation. Even an impatient nation needs time and space to contemplate.

[The idea for this story fermented during discussions with a group of experts during walks along the banks of the Waal, Emscher, Elbe and Spree rivers. In July we were part of an Indo-German visitors’ programme.]


  1. Very apt. But I worry about whether the move to face our water bodies will prompt elites to capture those spaces first, much as a tycoon advised me a few years ago to invest in one of the new developments overseeing Pallikarnai. "Those views will soon cost a fortune" he told me.

  2. Idea is very good, but .....

  3. A timely reminder that solutions indeed do exist provided we are willing to work with nature rather than against. Unfortunaely, the mistakes are far too costly. The Room for the River initiative has costed over Euro 6 billions. It is apt that we learn from these experiences and devise a strategy for working with nature for improving our water security.

    Dr. Ritesh Kumar, Wetlands International South Asia

  4. Nicely written, I think almost all rivers across the India facing similar situations.

  5. blaming shaming people who are just trying to exist .. big public infra big interest recklessness "the Adayar flood had happened because the people of Chennai had systematically turned their back to the river" Vaigai (Madurai Meenakshi) or Chitravathi (Puttaparthi) remain pious in people's prayers and exist mostly in imagination as big small dams have restricted the rivers to certain sections .. Ganga/Yamuna ..People have no place for garbage disposal but street dumps - municipalities/industry let wasteflow to rivers blocked the natural flood plain.. Waterfronts rehabs are eyewash at public expenses and like the river songs/dance and rallies - do nothing to reduce river problems BTW Heard of 'Sand Mafia'?