Tag Archives: #AtTheFrontDoor

No Abhishekams For the Rivers That Run Through Chennai and LA

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.


Fighting Cement’s Carbon Footprint In Santa Clara County

At the Front Door: Cement’s Carbon Footprinta column on climate change in our lives.

One of Santa Clara County’s most notable cement production facilities, the Lehigh Southwest quarry and plant, recently sued the County for failing to process their permit to expand mining operations. The proposed expansion would increase mining production by 600,000 tons per year and result in an additional 500 daily truck trips through Cupertino.

A concrete distribution center is also currently being considered in Milpitas and is expected to expose residents to worse air pollution.

Santa Clara County and the City of Cupertino are concerned about the impact of this expansion on the environment and on the quality of life of their residents.

Cement produces a whopping 4 billion tons of CO2 per year

This conflict of interest between the cement industry and the residents of communities where they are located is in no way localized to the SF-bay area. Quite the opposite — the cement industry impacts the health of our entire planet. It accounts for 8% of the total man-made carbon emissions — which is a whopping 4 billion tons of CO2 per year. In the United States alone, we produce about 90 metric tonnes of cement each year and California is the second-highest producer of cement in the country. Reducing the carbon emissions from cement production, therefore, must be included as a part of the solution to combat climate change.

There are two major reasons behind cement’s high carbon footprint. The manufacturing process of cement involves heating limestone to very high temperatures of over 1500 degrees Celsius. The chemical reaction that occurs in this process releases carbon dioxide.  Secondly, cement manufacturing requires a significant amount of energy, which is often obtained by burning fossil fuels. This further increases cement’s carbon footprint.  In addition to increased carbon emissions, cement production also leaves in its wake swathes of arid land from limestone mining and deposition of cement on the topsoil.

Concrete Jungles create hotspots

Once built, our concrete buildings and roads form urban heat islands making the heat waves even more difficult to live through. In line with the theme of racial and class inequality, both the cement-producing factories and the urban heat islands tend to disproportionately affect poor communities and communities of color. People who work in construction can also be exposed to wet cement, which is highly alkaline and can cause severe skin burns.

The excess production and consumption that plagues our modern lifestyle also show up in our cement-construction industry. We are building more than we need just for the sake of economic growth. This is epitomized by the ghost cities in China and India, with forests being replaced at a rapid pace by unoccupied concrete jungles. These are the same parts of the world where billions of people cannot afford a roof over their heads.

Are there low-emission alternatives to cement?

Innovative, low-emission alternatives to cement do exist. Some of these options reduce emissions by eliminating the high-temperature heating step from cement production.  Others reduce the amount of cement used in concrete replacing it with substitutes such as fly ash, which is a waste product from coal combustion. Switching to clean energy sources for cement production would also have an impact on cement’s carbon footprint. However, due to a lack of awareness and market demand, these solutions remain expensive and underutilized compared to traditional cement.

Most major cement-producing companies have acknowledged their environmental impact and stated commitments to reduce their carbon footprint. However, we need regulation to hold them accountable and to promote the adoption of lower-emission cement alternatives. For example, the Paris Agreement on climate stipulated that the annual carbon emission from the cement industry should fall by 16% by 2030.

Pushing clean energy bills in California

Senate Bill 596 Greenhouse Gasses: Cement Sector, is currently moving through the California Legislature. Sponsored by Senator Josh Becker, who represents parts of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, this bill would direct the Air Resources Board (ARB) to create a strategy to reach carbon neutrality in the cement industry by 2045. The limits set by the ARB would be enforceable.

Adding concrete to California’s Buy Clean program would also help reduce its carbon footprint. Senate Bill SB 778 would give preference to contractors who use low-carbon materials for state contracts. Since public agencies are the largest purchasers of concrete in the state, this bill would go a long way toward mainstreaming low-carbon concrete options. Additional legislation strives to update the specifications to improve the durability and reliability of concrete.

You can help in the fight to reduce cement’s carbon footprint by reaching out to your elected representative and communicating your support for the bills above. The contribution of cement to climate change does not get as much public attention as it deserves. Your input on this matter is, therefore, likely to have an outsized impact!

Vaibhav Karkare is a Climate Reality Leader who works in the tech industry.

Erin Zimmerman is trained as a Climate Reality Leader in 2019 by the Climate Reality Project, but has been active in the environmental movement for over a decade. Erin holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Adelaide, where she focused on environmental degradation and its impacts on the country and regional stability in Asia. She is currently the Chair of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Santa Clara Chapter of the Climate Reality Project and an active member of the Legislative and Policy team.