Living without water in Chennai

Just like the flash floods, the scorching drought in Chennai is also a product of perverse urban development and lack of political will in exploring radical solutions. Jinoy Jose P and Narayanan V report

Usharani is a domestic help from south Chennai’s Velachery. A little over 50, she works at three individual houses in the area, earning around ₹8,000 a month. Her husband Duraichellam earns as much but Rani akka says much of his earnings go towards his “unmentionable” habits (read boozing).

Last month, she sought a tentative raise in pay from her employers.

“We don’t get any water,” she tells this writer, pointing towards the dry pump located near her shanty residence that could easily be called a slum.

“I now buy water from private parties,” says Usharani. She pays ₹20 for one bucket of water. Her family of four needs more than 10 buckets every other day. “That works out to around ₹4,000 a month. That’s about a half of my monthly wages, just for buying water. Would you do that?” she asks.

Usharani’s employers have been kind, unlike the rains. The families have lent their help some money. But Usha is preparing for a longer, parched summer. “I’m scared of losing work as well in the coming weeks as these families plan to move to areas such as Kerala where their relatives reside,” Usharani says. “We have nowhere to go.”

“These days I reach my office early so I can take a bath there and wash my clothes before people arrive,” says C Manoharan, who works as a security officer at a business enterprise in Guindy’s industrial estate. “But people at my home don’t have that luxury,” he adds. Manoharan stays with his mother and younger brother in Moovendar Nagar in Pammal. The family manages its drinking and cooking needs with the three pots of water his brother fetches from a pipeline located a km from his residence.

“Groundwater in the entire area covering 20 streets has completely dried up. Also, the metro water supply stopped two months ago so we are forced to spend over ₹2,000 extra every month just for water,” says Manoharan.

Usharani and Manoharan are among the many thousands hit by Chennai’s water crisis, a recurring story every year. This season, the city started reeling under water shortage much earlier than usual, due to elusive rains, depleting water tables and the crunch in availability of water from nearby areas.

Quite ironically, Chennai city covers an area of just 180 square km and is home to three suitably big rivers, five famous wetlands and six forest areas. The three rivers — Kosathalaiyar, Cooum and Adyar — and the British-era-built Buckingham Canal, which links natural backwaters along the coast to Chennai’s port, are nearly unusable and dry today, but for some patches.

The wetlands — Pallikaranai Marsh, Pulicat Lake, Kattupalli Island, Madhavaram and Manali Jheels and the Adyar Estuary Creek — have seen massive encroachment in the past few decades on account of unbridled urbanisation.

Officials cite many reasons for the crisis: three years of poor monsoon, lack of awareness among the public about water conservation, usage of drinking water for various requirements besides cooking, absence of perennial water bodies and so on. But many think the issues are much more complex.

“Unlike Chennai’s floods, which is the crybaby, the water crisis of this city never gets the required attention of the press, policy and even the public,” says a senior urban planner who has been associated with Chennai’s city administration plans. “There is no concerted data available on the real magnitude of the water crisis.” Of course, there are the occasional news reports, political statements and anecdotal evidence supplied by residential bodies, etc. But the real impact, he rues, would be at par with or even more than the impact of the floods that happen once or twice in a decade.

“The political economy of Chennai’s water shortage has not been looked into with the gravity it deserves.”

The city’s poorest, accounting for about 20 per cent of a total population of nearly 50 lakh (which equals, say, Norway’s), are, inarguably, the worst affected. Unable to pay for private water supply, many of them often throng the city’s malls, railway stations and such hubs where they can access toilets, drinking water and some air-conditioning. “We understand this,” says an executive with a shopping mall in Vadapalani. “We try to accommodate people as much as we can. The water shortage is a real crisis for these low-income people.”

For the middle-class and upper middle-class, the water crisis, coupled with the heat wave, is something that derails family budgets. Usually, apartment societies take care of the logistics and distribute the cost among the residents. “Clearly, monthly expenses go up by 40-50 per cent during these periods,” says K Malini, a former IT employee who now works with an NGO in Nungambakkam.

“Many of my friends in the IT sector, especially those working in the OMR IT Corridor, tell me some offices have cut short working hours and tweaked shifts due to the water shortage.” (Some IT companies have opted for a ‘bring your own (disposable) plates’ policy — see report in BusinessLine, June 14)

What is being done

Officials say the priority now is to ensure water availability in the tail-end areas of the city, “particularly to the poor people and slum dwellers,” explains TN Hariharan, MD, Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB).

Of Chennai’s total requirement of 830 MLD (million litres a day), the CMWSSB currently manages to supply about 525 MLD through sources such as ground water, surface water (lakes/reservoirs) and desalination plants. While South Chennai’s requirement is met through water from Veeranam lake and Nemmeli Seawater Desalination Plant, North Chennai’s water needs are met through the wells located in Thamaraipakkam and Minjur Desalination Plant, according to the officials.

“During the 2017 drought, we supplied 470 MLD water and our tankers made 7,500 trips a day. Today, we are making 9,700 trips and increased our supply to 525 MLD. “Still, the demand is unmet,” says Hariharan.

Listing out the measures taken by CMWSSB, Hariharan says the body has added 11,000 sintex tanks across the city. Besides, it has installed temporary pipeline using which water is supplied to all the households in 64 streets identified as “narrow lanes”, where supply through lorries is impossible. The CMWSSB says that in addition to 9,000- and 12,000-litre water tankers, it has introduced 2,000- and 3,000-litre water tanker lorries primarily to reach slum areas.

Still, the shortage is here to stay, given the way rain stays elusive. The city’s three major reservoirs — Chembarambakkam, Poondi and Red Hills — are dry already. If it doesn’t rain in July and the following weeks, Chennai is going to face an even bigger crisis, feel experts, especially with piped water supply decreasing, groundwater tables sinking alarmingly and discontent among people in neighbouring districts that supply water to private tankers peaking.

What’s to be done?

The government reportedly plans nine new open wells in Neyveli to tap another 10 MLD of water. It also plans to tap 60 MLD from the Paravanar river basin in Neyveli. There are plans to invest more in desalination plants. But water management experts say politicians are looking at the wrong end for solutions.

According to Sekhar Raghavan, Director, Rain Centre, an NGO that looks into issues such as fresh water availability and rainwater harvesting, monsoon failure is a crucial factor in the current water crisis. The city’s average annual rainfall is 140 cm per year but last year it was 40-50 per cent less than the average. “The North-East monsoon is the lifeline for Chennai, so once it had failed we knew as early as in January this year that we were in crisis,” says Raghavan.

Experts like Raghavan feel the public should be more responsible about water use and conservation. Even though rainwater harvesting was made mandatory in Chennai in 2003, the law is not followed in its spirit. In most places, the old and wrong practice of using PVC pipe, which is buried in a narrow pit, to collect and send rainwater still exists. Raghavan says the government should first harvest rain in its own buildings and periodically review all the lakes and water bodies in and around Chennai. There are close to 3,000 aeris (irrigation tanks) in Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram which have lost their relevance because of illegal construction, laments Raghavan.

“These irrigation tanks are inter-connected by design, so when one tank overflows, the excess water automatically goes to the other tanks in neighbouring villages.”

Ironically, most factors that trigger floods in Chennai overlap with the drought, starting from levelling of lakes and water for real estate development. So the solutions to the water shortage can in turn help check the impact of floods. Clearing lakes and expanding their size can store more rain water while helping cushion impact of floods. “The government has no long-term vision. They want to create a problem and then spend several thousand crores to provide only a quick-fix solution,” says Raghavan.

“Chennai’s weather extremities are well-recorded historically. Still, the administration wakes up only when a crisis hits,” says Jayshree Vencatesan, scientist and managing trustee at Care Earth Trust, an NGO.

Is desalination a sustainable solution? “It is, technically speaking,” says S Sundaramoorthy, a desalination expert, who had helped design Chennai’s first desalination plant at Minjur. “But desalination is costly. At the moment, it costs ₹50 to produce 1,000 litres of water and the corporation takes a cut of ₹45 on this and supplies it at a rate of ₹5,” he says. Since water is a political hot potato, political parties often stay away from supporting radical solutions especially if it involves an increase in tariff. Promotion of smart meters and waste water recycling must assume priority.

Sensus, a firm that makes smart water meters, says faulty pipes waste 20-35 per cent of the total flow in the city’s apartments and houses. Implementing a smart water network, including smart water meters which deliver real-time, highly accurate data about activity in the network, can reduce water loss by 15-20 per cent. Smart metering can help authorities assess the amount of water used by individual households meticulously and price them accordingly.

An urban planner says if the water use can be adequately measured and metered, rational pricing mechanisms can be brought in. “Now, the public do not appreciate the value of water as its supply is taken for granted even in cities such as Chennai. This should change. The affluent class must pay for the water they use, like they do for electricity.” Planners say water can no longer be treated like a commodity that is free for all. Its use should be capped and controlled creatively, in order to check abuse.

When it comes to recycling, a workable solution is waste-water reuse. “We can follow the sewage treatment model successfully practised in areas such as Orange County, California, US,” says Sundaramoorthy, who was formerly associated with Chennai’s water regulatory body. Such waste water treatment costs only a tenth of the cost of sea water desalination, which involves complex processes and where the discharge can be environmentally hazardous.

The Orange Water District is purifying sewer water into drinking water using micro filtration, reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide disinfection. Water from the plant helps meet the drinking needs of people in California. It is learnt that Chennai’s water body was ready with a plan to set up a waste water plant some decades ago but the idea was nipped in the bud as the political leadership then in charge felt it would not be able sell the idea to the public as Opposition parties would term the move “offering toilet water to the public.”

In sum, it all zeroes down to political will and citizen responsibility, says Vencatesan. From developers to industries to residential societies, all must understand that the city can ill-afford to keep relying on the monsoon, which are now perilously erratic and they must devise solutions that are sustainable. Waste water reuse will be a great place to begin with, says Sundaramoorthy.

(With inputs from Narayanan V)

Published on June 18, 2019

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