Chennai’s water scarcity is self-inflicted

J Harsha | Updated on February 18, 2019 Published on February 18, 2019

Murky affair: Fresh water in almost every water body in Chennai is unfit for any type of use   -  THE HINDU

Poor upkeep of the numerous water bodies and chaotic water management practices are keeping the city water-starved

Plummeting groundwater, sea water intrusion, dried up reservoirs, and people queuing up for hours before a water tanker or a bore-well are commonly associated with Chennai.

The city of over 10 million faces water shortage not only during summer months but throughout the year. In 2018, NITI Aayog warned that there will be no fresh water in Chennai in the coming decades.

In fact, Chennai’s per capita water supply this year has already plunged to 60 litres per day. Even before the advent of the summer months, Chennai’s water supply has almost halved to 400-450 million litres per day. The situation in the suburbs and slums is worse.

Every summer, the prospects of Chennai going dry draw much media attention. Images of long queues of women and children standing in front of water tankers are beamed across the media. Clarion calls for more desalination plants and water harvesting have become an annual exercise. But the big question is whether Chennai is really water-scarce.

Reality check

Google Earth satellite images confirm that Chennai has no less than 100 water bodies of 5-20 hectares each. These water bodies have survived decades of onslaught such as encroachment, and still possess considerable amount of fresh water.

While the city experiences water shortage as early as November and December, the Landsat images from USGS for January 2019 confirm the availability of water in these water bodies.

A visit to Velachery Lake, one of the lakes in southern Chennai that is spread across 20 hectares, confirmed the presence of considerable amount of fresh water even in January. Similar is the case with Adambakkam Lake and other adjoining water bodies.

There is considerable scope for managing and overcoming the water scarcity in Chennai every summer if the same are utilised in conjunction with groundwater, water supply from Chembarakam, Red Hills and Poondi reservoirs, and potable water from desalination plants.

If it were not for the severe deterioration in water quality, a result of the callous attitude and the neglect of these water bodies by the people concerned, these lakes could have helped relieve the city of its water crisis.

It is perplexing that Chennai, a city synonymous with water scarcity, has turned a blind-eye to the hundreds of water bodies in and around it.

The problem

The fresh water in almost every water body located in Chennai has been rendered unfit for any type of use. A reconnaissance survey round the water bodies, particularly the Velachery Lake, showed that the water is no longer consumable because of all forms of waste discharge into the lake. The lake has turned into a dump for the extensive plastic waste generated across this area.

Also, a considerable portion of the lake has been invaded by water hyacinths and its boundaries encroached upon by human settlements, causing a reduction in water area. Thus, Velachery Lake and other water bodies in Chennai are gradually facing the prospect of extinction.

The toxic water bodies endanger the groundwater quality as well as surface water and groundwater are strongly interlinked.

Almost every water body in Chennai is losing precious freshwater to pollution. When hundreds of water bodies are allowed to be breeding grounds for water hyacinths, causing water loss through evapotranspiration, the cry that Chennai is water-starved does not evoke much sympathy.

Hence, Chennai’s water scarcity is largely self-inflicted. The crisis exposes dubious water-management practices in the city.

Water governance

The worst part of Chennai’s water governance is that it is chaotic. The water bodies, with precious freshwater, aren’t managed by any one agency. For example, encroachment of water bodies is handled by one agency, lake rejuvenation by another, and pollution control by yet another.

Therefore, management of water bodies in Chennai are split across multiple agencies with little or no co-ordination between them. Rather, this multiple responsibility over water bodies proves convenient for agencies to shift the onus whenever the neglect of water bodies is pointed out.

Without resetting the water governance in Chennai, solutions such as water harvesting, desalination plants, and inter-basin transfer of water won’t work.

Given the gravity of the crisis, it time that Chennai and its stakeholders woke up to finding solutions. The water bodies should be rejuvenated on a priority basis so that the water is of high quality and fit for human use.

Also, it must be ensured that these bodies serve as water harvesting and groundwater recharge structures. Polluters and encroachers must be penalised.

The management of these water bodies should be brought under a single agency, which should be legally empowered and must work in an integrated manner with Central and State agencies.

The agency’s responsibilities should include collating data, rejuvenating the dilapidated water bodies, publishing information on the availability and quality of water in these bodies, increasing awareness amongst the masses, and removing encroachments from time to time in accordance with the directions of the courts.

Singapore, a small city-state that gets water from abroad (Malaysia), manages its water resources way better than Chennai. Singapore’s water governance model enables it to overcome any crisis with ease.

Also, the existing development model of Chennai must be dumped. The pressure on Chennai’s water resources can be eased by arresting the migration towards the city.

For that to happen, development should be distributed across the State, particularly in regions that receive higher annual average rainfall and have higher water availability.

So, Chennai, strictly speaking, is not a water-scarce region. It is the scarcity of ideas, innovation, and governance that is keeping the city water-starved.

The writer is Director, Central Water Commission. The views are personal.

Published on February 18, 2019

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