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Chennai's water crisis: A city dries up

Poor management, failure to stop pollution of rivers have resulted in Chennai's water crisis

Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu state, is surrounded by water. The rivers Cooum, Adyar and Kortalaiyar run through the centre of the city as well as its southern and northern fringes.

There are also multiple lakes and other water bodies across the city, which borders the Bay of Bengal and is on India's eastern coast.

A landmark in Chennai - formerly known as Madras - is Marina Beach, a sandy beach that runs for 6km and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every day.

Still, the southern city is today in the throes of a severe water crisis caused by poor water management and a failure to ensure that its vast network of water systems, including the three rivers, is free from heavy pollution and encroachment.

Water supply from Metro Water, the local body that supplies drinking water, has plunged from 830 million litres a day to 525 million litres per day since June 1 due to a third consecutive year of drought.

Across the city, people stand in line to fill water in bright-coloured plastic pots from tankers provided by Metro Water. Those who can afford it get water from private operators who charge anything from 3,000 rupees (S$58) to 7,000 rupees for a lorry tanker with 12,000 litres of water.

Various private schools have shut down junior classes temporarily or are holding classes for only half a day, and companies have come up with water-saving measures such as reducing pressure in water taps.


Residents queueing for water from a distribution tanker on the outskirts of Chennai. Water can be obtained from tankers provided by Metro Water, the local body that supplies drinking water, or private operators, who charge anything from 3,000 rupees (S$58) to 7,000 rupees for a lorry tanker with 12,000 litres of water. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Hotels and restaurants are cutting down on servings, taking water-intensive dishes such as sambhar, a lentil-based vegetable stew, off the menu in some cases.

"We tell customers we can give them only half a tumbler of water and the water pressure in all the basins has been reduced. We also tell them to help conserve water," said Mr C. R. B. Bhat, owner of Hotel Raaj Bhavan in upmarket Nungambakkam area in Chennai.

While some rain brought temporarily relief, it has not mitigated the crisis, which many are comparing with what happened in Cape Town last year when the South African city ran out of water.

"People have to realise rain is the only source of water and they can't take it for granted," said Dr Shekhar Raghavan, director of the Rain Centre, a Chennai-based non-profit organisation which advocates water harvesting. "This is a wake-up call for us, " he added.

Chennai, a former British military garrison and East India Company trading outpost, is one of India's more prosperous cities and the sixth most populous in the country.

Known as the Detroit of Asia because it is home to one third of the country's automobile industry, Chennai was named by tourism guide Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit in 2015.

While the city has grown and prospered, water resources, including ground water, have come under strain due to a series of factors.

This includes a growing population that has doubled in the last three decades to 4.6 million, encroachment or construction activity in lakes and river beds, irrigation demands of agriculture activity in the outskirts and an explosion in the demand for water in the industrial, commercial and residential sectors.

Chennai on average receives more rain than cities such as Ahmedabad, Bengaluru or Delhi, but the monsoon and pre-monsoon showers, which usually replenish water sources, were insufficient last year.

Mr K. P. Ramaswamy, who lives in the north-western part of Chennai in Anna Nagar, said he had seen this kind of water crisis only in the 1980s and recalled how water was brought in by trains at the time. The Tamil Nadu government has announced recently it would once again bring water into the city by train from Jolarpettai, 220km away.

Chennai has historically relied on the annual monsoon rain to replenish its reservoirs since the rivers are polluted with sewage.

The city gets its water supply from two desalination plants, four reservoirs and minor and major rivers such as the Cauvery and Krishna rivers.

Water supply is also augmented from the Veeranam Lake in Cuddalore, from where water is piped to Chennai.

This season, two of the reservoirs have gone dry, while levels in the other two reservoirs are also low.

Water supply from Metro Water to the city is now coming from Veeranam and from the two desalination plants.

Experts suggest a multi-pronged approach from desilting rivers and lakes as well as rainwater harvesting to reusing of grey or waste water and making irrigation in the Chennai outskirts more water-efficient.

Mr Raj Bhagat Palanichamy, a geographic information systems and remote sensing analyst with WRI India, said: "Chennai has gone through a massive change in demand in the last 100 years. Delhi has less rainfall, but Chennai is facing a water crisis. This is an indication we are not planning properly. It needs better management on the demand and supply side."

Corruption, said city dwellers, had also led to encroachment by both the poor and rich along the river bed and in water bodies within the city.

Mr Sumanth Raman, a political analyst and long-term Chennai resident, said: "Encroachment is by everyone. Because of corruption, you have engineering colleges and factories being built in water bodies. Poor people have built houses too."

To augment water supply, the Tamil Nadu government in 2013 announced two more desalination plants, with a capacity of 150 million litres a day and 400 million litres a day respectively. But one ran into legal problems, while the other ran into trouble with environmental clearances, with work yet to start on either.

 
 

The two current plants each has a capacity of 180 million litres a day.

Since the water crisis, the Tamil Nadu government - which is led by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which has sought to downplay the severity of the water crisis - has announced measures for restoration of traditional water bodies, including an allocation of 5 million rupees.

Party leaders have also held special prayers and rituals to pray for rain, earning criticism from the opposition.

Yet, water activists note that Chennai is now a cautionary tale for the rest of India, where there is equally poor water management with increasing urbanisation putting pressure on water resources in many cities.

Anger has been building up over the water crisis. Two things are irking people, said Mr Raman. "Why was desilting (of rivers and water bodies) not done? If water is not available, how are hundreds of private tanker companies able to supply water in less than 24 hours? Where is the water coming from and why have the prices gone up? Is there some kind of looting happening?"

Mr Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People, a non-profit organisation, said India needed a more comprehensive water policy with strict action against those who waste water.

He added that India needed a National Urban Water Policy that includes regulation on water harvesting and groundwater recharge.

For now, he said: "Hopefully, Chennai will get more rain. But the problem is that we will all forget and go back to other stories."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2019, with the headline 'A city dries up'. Print Edition | Subscribe