A parched city on edge

Sandhya Ravishankar | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on April 14, 2017

Stark contrast: The Chembarambakkam lake, which breached its banks and flooded Chennai in 2015, is today left with around 10 per cent of its capacity Image: SR Raghunathan

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No clear solution: The Adayar — one of the three rivers draining Chennai — is highly polluted and cannot be used for potable water Image: G Krishnaswamy

Early lessons: Even the youngest family member joins the daily struggle to fetch water as municipal supply is restricted to once in three days Image: R Ragu

As drought looms over Chennai barely a year after flooding, there is little preparedness from a government teetering on a thin majority. Experts warn that any sustainable solution would necessitate working with nature, rather than depleting already scarce resources

The heat is already making Chennai residents wilt. “It is only April, imagine how bad May and June are going to be,” says K Perumal, manager at a restaurant in south Chennai. At home he is already facing water shortages. “We buy cans for drinking and cooking, but for bathing and washing clothes we get supply only once in three days. We have two schoolgoing children. What on earth do we do for water?”

That’s a question haunting the one crore denizens of the city, which daily requires about 1,200 million litres of water. Of the four reservoirs — Poondi, Chembarambakkam, Cholavaram and Red Hills — supplying the city, the Cholavaram is completely dry and the rest have only around 10 per cent or less of their storage capacity.

After the deluge in December 2015, groundwater levels in Chennai rose by two metres to touch 10.5 metres, according to the Chennai Metrowater Board. Poor rains (62 per cent deficit) the following year pushed people across the State to tap groundwater for their daily needs. The levels fell one to three metres in and around Chennai this year. Private tankers are in demand as government supply has failed in many parts of the city. These tankers illegally draw excessive groundwater, and this is threatening to worsen an already distressing situation.

The decades-old court battles with neighbouring States for water supply from shared rivers offer no hope of succour this time around — Karnataka, too, is facing drought, as is Kerala. In January, the then chief minister O Panneerselvam requested his Andhra Pradesh counterpart, Chandrababu Naidu, to release more water from the Telugu Ganga project. Naidu agreed and 2.5 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of water arrived from the neighbouring State. Now that too has trickled away.

Helpless State government

At a March 9 review meeting, municipal administration minister SP Velumani announced measures to help Chennai tide over its drinking water crisis. The minutes of the meeting stated: “Out of 12,552 tmcft of water, only 1,629 tmcft available, which amounts to 13 per cent of the total. Minjur and Nemmeli desalination plants are providing 100 million litres of water per day (mld). Despite the failure of the monsoon last year and tanks drying up as a result, 550 mld of water is being provided every day to the city from desalination plants and other water sources.”

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Granite quarries are now being tapped for water. The lignite mines of Neyveli, along with other borewells are expected to yield 60 million litres. Another 83.6 million litres will come from farm wells in Tiruvallur district, north of Chennai, that have been taken on rent by the State government. At the near-dry Chembarambakkam, Red Hills and Cholavaram reservoirs, pumpsets will be used to draw around 443 million litres of underground water.

On February 20, soon after taking over as chief minister and winning a vote of confidence in the Assembly, Edappadi Palanisamy had announced several schemes in the name of his recently deceased leader ‘Amma’ — the former CM J Jayalalithaa. When journalists asked how his government intended to tackle the looming drought situation, Palanisamy had replied with a beatific smile, “There is no need to worry, we will ensure that everyone in Tamil Nadu gets water without disruption.” Pressed for details, especially given that neighbouring States too were reeling under drought, he merely said, “The State government is working out a comprehensive plan.”

The authorities could not be reached for details about the larger plan to tackle drought, not just in the immediate but also long term.

‘Chennai Blue’ plan

Global water resources experts who surveyed Chennai after the December 2015 deluge say that policymakers should be ready with a comprehensive plan for any eventuality — whether flood or drought. And this, they say, can be achieved only by working with nature, rather than drawing groundwater at an alarming rate.

The first step would be to acknowledge that Chennai is primarily made of wetlands and these have been massively encroached upon. Simultaneously, its rivers would have to be cleaned up; the three rivers that drain Chennai — Cooum, Adayar and Kosasthalaiyar — are highly polluted and cannot be used for potable water (as detailed in part I of this series).

Alongside there is need for speedy measures to desilt, restore and reclaim the lakes, ponds and other waterbodies that have been encroached upon. “Thirty years ago we had around 41,000 irrigation tanks and waterbodies,” says L Venkatachalam, water resources expert at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. “Today we have only 19,000 left. Chennaiites annually spend ₹680 crore to buy water,” he added.

He draws attention to one pattern that stands out. “We are facing drought for five years and torrential rains the year after that. We need to do water accounting. A renewable resource is slowly becoming non-renewable.”

Take, for instance, the Adayar river. A 1971 topographical sheet shows its bed width as 155 metres at Gandhinagar, 67.26 metres in Saidapet, 47.8 metres in Anakaputhur and 57.13 metres in Thiruneermalai. “Now it is less than half the width,” Venkatachalam says. “Worse, it is clogged with sewage and effluents. We are reducing the capacity of our waterbodies.”

Long-term vision

The number of people living in a city such as Chennai will likely double within one generation, says Kees Bons, the Netherlands-based water expert with Deltares, an international firm specialising in water management for cities. “So that means anything we see as problems now will double in the years to come for the next generation,” he points out.

The Dutch have for centuries been the best in the world in water management, as the Netherlands is below sea level and the task of managing and living with water is a constant one. HWJ Henk Ovink, special envoy for water affairs for the Netherlands government, visited Chennai after the 2015 floods. He advises the State government to take into account all aspects of the city and its residents when charting out a plan. “Come up with a comprehensive report — an approach that focuses not only on floodwalls or seagates or projection schemes, but also on social, economic, environmental, ecological aspects. When these come together they cause more resiliency in your system — both your physical as well as your social system,” he says.

Arcadis, an international firm specialising in water management, advocates bringing together all State government agencies to work towards a common goal — whether it’s flood-proofing the city or preventing drought. “The biggest problem I have experienced worldwide is that departments involved in this integrated decision-making — they don’t collaborate,” says Rob Steijn, business director of Arcadis. “It is how governance is structured — we have a department of roads, a department of environment, all different, all bright people doing their thing, but this requires something more.”

The final word came from an American water expert — a firm that flood-proofed New Orleans. It advises involving the citizen in all plans and schemes. “If you don’t empower the citizens to do something, you lose the capability of building back-up,” says David Waggonner of Waggonner and Ball Architects. “If you find there is a problem but you don’t tell them anything they can personally do about it, then it goes back up to the government to do it. Then we never get action.”

At a critical juncture in the State’s fortunes, with drought at its doors, the powers-that-be are preoccupied with political fisticuffs. As the government teeters on a slim majority, accountability and transparency do not appear high on the priority list; the lack of vision and governance at this crucial stage could prove costly for generations of Chennai’s and Tamil Nadu’s residents.

(This concludes the two-part series on the degradation of Chennai’s water resources)

Sandhya Ravishankar is an independent Chennai-based journalist with The Lede

Published on April 14, 2017
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