With 140 cm of annual rainfall, Chennai has no business to ever get into a drought situation. But it did — for over 170 straight days without a drop of rain, the city has slipped into such a horrendous water crisis that even the international media, notably CNN and The New York Times , ran stories on it. Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio highlighted the problem to his 32 million Instagram followers through a post in June.

Yet today, though the current water shortage problems is far from solved, the mood in the city is upbeat. There are good reasons to believe that from after a few years, the city will never go dry. Some people are even talking of Chennai, 425 sq km large and home to 10.6 million people, as the emerging ‘water capital’ of India. The city’s Chief Resilience Officer, Krishna Mohan, believes a complete drought-proofing of Chennai could be as near as five years.

So, what has changed? Hundreds of the city’s water bodies, long presumed dead, are being brought back to life. A massive community effort overseen by the city’s Corporation is underway, involving tens of organisations and individuals. Only, it didn’t come up as a response to the current shortage problem, but the exact opposite of it — floods.

The story begins in November-December 2015, when the city was buffeted by rains like never-before, which breached a lake bank and killed hundreds — and galvanised authorities into action. In the next few months, after hundreds of hours of meetings and thousands of emptied coffee cups, a plan emerged.

The Corporation of Greater Chennai identified 210 dead water bodies and did something unprecedented—it put details of them all on its website and called for volunteers. The Corporation would sign the cheque, but the volunteer would do the job—mobilise men and machines, clear the clogs, de-silt the lake and deepen it, de-block the inlet and outlet runnels, cement-up the banks, line the lake with trees and fence it. Tens of organisations — local bodies, corporates, NGOs, residential associations — came forward to do it.


Today, the work is mostly over, and the city abounds with shimmering ponds and lakes. Commissioner G Prakash says the rehabilitation of all the 210 water bodies would be over in a few months. These together will be able to hold a billion cubic feet of water — worth a month’s needs of the city — but a lot more, if the ground water re-charging effect of the lakes is taken into account.

But the rehabilitation of the 210 water bodies, with a budget of ₹215 crore, is only half the story. Similar work is happening outside of this programme. For example, there are 63 temples in the city with their own ponds — 17 of these have been taken up by temple trusts or residential associations for rehabilitation. The job is a bit easier here, because the run-off water from the nearby streets can be channelled into the temple-tanks. Wells have been dug into the tank beds, so that water gets into them, and seeps into the land around.

And then there are corporates who are doing up lakes in the vicinity of their establishments, as part of their CSR programmes. The Danish multinational, Danfoss, for example, has done three, and plans more. Car maker Hyundai has done one, in Velakottai village near its plant. Many of these projects are run with corporate funds by the Confederation of Indian Industry, with the aid of consultants.

Joining hands

Some NGOs have taken up the job. Notable among them is The Nature Conservancy, a US-based NGO, which is working on the Sembakkam lake, a 100-acre water body that can hold 10 million cubic feet of water—completely choked with water hyacinth. So far, according to the project director, Dr M Nisha Priya, 10,000 tonnes of the weed have been removed and de-silting work is underway.

Even when all these get completed, the work would just have begun. If you consider not just the city but also the adjoining areas, which could provide water to the city, there are 3,600 water bodies, according to resilientchennai.com , the website of Resilient Chennai, part of the 100 Resilient Cities project of the Rockfeller Foundation. Deepen them, link them up, they become the city’s water reserve.

Commissioner Prakash says that ‘water bodies’ is but one of the prongs of attack. The city, he says, has 6,000 km of roads, and the rains falling on them just runs off. Solution? Water absorption pits.

Some 8,000 of them are now in place, Prakash wants to do 15,000 more by the year end, and eventually, 50,000. And, why not get ‘large properties’, such as college campuses and wedding halls, put in their own absorption pits and trenches? Around 200,000 such properties have been identified, says Prakash.

And then, an additional layer of security. The city now has two sea water desalination plants, which cater to 15 per cent of the needs. Two more are to come up. Furthermore, the city could get some help through the canal that brings in water from the Krishna river up north, whenever the government of Andhra Pradesh wishes to.

So, in future, let floods and droughts cancel out each other. The city will not be bothered.