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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

At the Front Door: Revitalizing Urban Rivers – a column on climate change in our lives.

The Cooum in Chennai, the Pinheiros River in Sao Paolo, and the Los Angeles River in LA have one thing in common. All three urban waterways flow through the heart of large metropolises into mighty oceans but are largely ignored, forgotten, or despised by the citizens who live on their banks.

“I did not know there was a river, let alone visit the river growing up in Los Angeles,” said environmental advocate Sarah Rascon, at a September 10 Ethnic Media Briefing to share the results of a multilingual community survey about revitalizing the Los Angeles River, and the LA River Master Plan behind the project.

Remarkably, a decade earlier in 2011, river activist Jenny Price said the same of the LA River.

“The most extraordinary thing about this extraordinary river is that no one seems to know where it is. How does a city lose its river?”

The answer lies in urban development that over time, forgets about the waterway that birthed it. Throughout history cities have been built alongside rivers, reshaping their destiny and the landscape around them.

In River Cities, City Rivers, the authors describe how “cities have harnessed, modified, and engineered rivers, altering ecologies and creating new landscapes in the process of urbanization.”

In Chennai in southern India, the Cooum has a historic past that is now lost to the murky depths of a 21st-century Cooum cesspool. According to city lore, recorded in a 7th-century Shaivite poem called the Devara, a king called Rajendra Chola ordered the village council to dig a canal from the river to the Shivapuram temple to provide water for the deity’s daily abhishekam. When the British East India Company arrived in 1639, they established Fort St. George on its northern banks where the Cooum meets the Bay of Bengal. The town they called Madras (present-day Chennai) served as a trading post and seaport. Over time, the colonial rulers built iconic Indo-Saracenic architectural structures along the Cooum’s riverbanks.

I spent four years at university in one of those architectural masterpieces – the Women’s Christian College of Madras – and will admit that the Cooum triggered my senses only when a fetid odor wafted into the classrooms on a hot summer’s day. That stink, say Chennai river activists, is a reminder of “what a monumental mess” the city has made of its once holy river.

Why Rivers Die

Chennai’s river activists call the Cooum ‘a dying river’ with good reason.

As settlements grow into towns and towns into metropolises, the demand for drinking water very quickly outstrips supply. In Chennai, reports IndiaWaterPortal, a water advocacy group, dams built from 1868 onwards to create drinking water reservoirs for the city’s thirsty citizens, soon diverted the supply from freshwater sources and crippled water flow into the Cooum. Inevitably, as the city grew, mismanagement by municipal authorities, urban sprawl, and a “lack of civic sense,” say activists, made the Couum a receptacle for industrial waste and raw domestic sewage. Today the Cooum is a polluted open sewer emitting a toxic stench in its sluggish meander through Chennai neighborhoods into the Bay.

In California, the LA river which flowed through rural farmland was once a free-flowing life source for the native Tongva tribes of the region and a primary freshwater source for the city built on its banks. But after a series of devastating floods, the Army Corps of Engineers encased most sections of the LA river into concrete channels to control overflow. Today sections of this paved urban waterway run along an industrial corridor that includes the Long Beach Freeway, rail yards, voltage powerlines and densely populated cities, which pollute the water with urban runoff and sewage.

Building a concrete channel, 1938

“The river has gone through so many phases of life, from its origins as a respected resource to primal ancestors to a neglected waterway as LA grew,” said Rascon, the Environmental Equity Officer at the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority.

Dayton Bridge on the LA River

According to the 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG), the widespread pollution of urban rivers is caused by inadequate sewage collection, poor water treatment facilities, and a lack of awareness among city populations about proper waste disposal. This toxic mix of ignorance, poor infrastructure, and inadequate public services, turn urban watercourses into receptacles for all kinds of solid waste.

The WRG suggests that in order to resurrect urban rivers we must first change the way we look at them. Urban rivers offer a unique opportunity to create environmental awareness about “urban landscapes, quality of life, as well as public awareness on environmental and water and sanitation issues.” Changing perceptions of an urban waterway as something more than a gigantic drainage ditch will need the partnership of local governments, advocacy groups, and other stakeholders committed to the restoration of city rivers.

Bringing Rivers Back to Life

When community partnerships have been successful, river regeneration movements have produced positive outcomes.

In Sao Paolo, an ambitious, state-sponsored $735 million clean-up project is underway to revitalize the polluted Pinheiros River by 2022. Despite its status as Brazil’s wealthiest city, Sao Paolo is infamous for its sewage-ridden urban waterway – waste flows freely into the Pinheiros from river basin slums and tent cites that have no waste treatment services.

After removing 30,000 tons of trash from the river, future plans will improve water oxygenation and reduce foul odors, while river conservation groups like Rios e Ruas are promoting the development of bike paths and riverside cafes to encourage locals to embrace a clean river agenda. Welcome sightings of turtles, herons, and ducks prove the project is paying off.

But river revitalization movements founder when community partnerships fail; they are especially vulnerable to political transitions when the transfer of power shelves well-intentioned plans.

In Chennai for example, multiple attempts to clean and revitalize the Cooum by the Chennai River Restoration Trust, have stalled as state governments changed hands; efforts to clean the Cooum have failed repeatedly. Some progress was made in 2018 with the removal of 21,665 tons of waste from the river, and the Water Resources Department (WRD) desilted and widened nearly 15 km of the waterway in the city. Work also began on a 1.5-km nature trail as part of a $250 thousand-dollar eco-restoration project. The city corporation is now constructing a fence along the river to deter ‘dumping.’

However, industrial waste and untreated sewage continue to flow into the river. Water conservation experts say that without a dedicated long-term strategy, there is little hope for resuscitating the Cooum in Chennai.

The Cooum River in Chennai

Reimaging the Future of the LA River

But LA is on the brink of change. Results of the multilingual community survey shared at the EMS briefing make it clear that Los Angeles County residents fully support the rejuvenation of their river.  Almost 91% of respondents from diverse communities back the LA River Master Plan which is set to receive an injection of $54 million from the state.

Advocates championing the project at the EMS briefing represented an alliance of state and local government, as well as community partners who shared their perspectives on how the LA River Master Plan will benefit the environment and lives in the community.

The diverse panel of speakers included  Rudy Ortega from the Fernandeno Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, Speaker Anthony Rendon of the California State Assembly, LA City Council President Nury Martinez, Miguel Angel Luna of Urban Semilla, Damon Nagami from the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Southern California Ecosystems Project, Belen Bernal from Nature for All, and Mark Stanley, Executive Officer, Rivers and Mountains Conservancy. The group also included Fernando Guerra, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles, Loyola Marymount University, and Sandy Close of Ethnic Media Services, which conducted the survey.

“The poll is telling us there is a renewed interest and vigor to revitalize the LA River,” said Rascon. Results reveal that nearly 85 % of Los Angelenos support investment in river revitalization if it gives them more parks, natural areas, opportunities for recreation, and river access. More than 91% want more bike and pedestrian paths.

“When we talk about the river we always talk about the future,” said Rendon, who was raised in the vicinity of the LA river. He acknowledged that growing up, people “did not really think much about its history or place in the city fabric.” But after working in the nonprofit sector, Rendon now recognizes its potential  as “a tremendous resource …. for the people in that community.”

“We could do better.” Rendon pointed out, “Rather than being an open wound,” the river could actually be a bridge between communities.

“We want to make the river more accessible to more Angelenos,” said Fernando Guerra who presented the survey results. “When we start thinking and reimagining what a post-pandemic city’s going to look like, the river should be upfront.”

“We need to be outside, we need to have activities in the urban space and thinking of a revitalized river is a great support for this effort.”

Earlier in the summer, the Friends of the LA River (FoLAR) launched the Great LA River CleanUp 2021  during June and July in an effort to “ to bring the river back to its roots.” The goal of this volunteer-driven river revitalization project was to remove trash from different stretches of the LA river before it washed into the Pacific Ocean.

The world is running out of freshwater

As temperatures climb and icecaps melt we are running out of freshwater sources faster than they can replenish, says the Institute for the Built Environment, but restoring urban rivers will benefit the planet by “improving water quality, reducing flood risk, enhancing ecological function, and enriching recreation and social value.”

Bringing the LA river back to life has deep cultural significance for Rudy Ortega whose ancestors originally lived by the river.

“We have always used it as a resource,” he said. “As a tribal people …it was always alive for us.”

Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.

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Meera Kymal

Meera Kymal is the Managing Editor at India Currents and Founder/Producer at She produces multi-platform content on the South Asian diaspora through the lens of social justice,...