DIPPING BELOW ZERO: CHENNAI WATER CRISIS
Chennai’s primary sources of water – the four major reservoirs do not hold even one percent of their capacity (in other words dipping below zero level), the worst water crisis for the city in 30 years.
TEXT: SAPNA SRIVASTAVA
Clearly, no lessons learnt once again. The December 2015 floods in Chennai had brought to forefront
the rampant encroachments of wetlands that were the main culprit for the city going down under.
In 2019, there are still no mechanism in place to check desilting of wetlands or stopping construction on wetlands to avoid a similar flood-like situation. The unabated infrastructure construction from
highways & roads to residential complexes by converting water bodies and rampant sewage waste and garbage disposal in canals, rivers and lakes over the years has brought the city to this tipping point.
The unplanned urban development destroying the wetlands around the city and almost negligible rainwater harvesting are cited as the main reasons among the complex problems of water shortage in Chennai. Adding to the man-made problems, the delay in the monsoon has deepened the water owes as there are no policies in place to compensate for the shortfall. Madras High Court on June 19 pulled up the state government for not taking adequate measures to tackle the crisis even when a failed monsoon was expected.
HOW IS THE CITY COPING?
While the well to do residents are just about managing to pay the inflated prices of private water-tanker companies, the poorer residents of the city depend on government’s water tankers, sometimes having to wait for three days.
Hotels in Chennai have started serving food in disposable plates, to save water. Drinking water is also
rationed in some restaurants and hotels, according to reports. Most hospitals in the city are “just about
managing” with a municipal tanker coming twice a week and many student hostels have closed.
Companies in the city’s IT corridors are asking their employees to work from home, and bring their own water. Clashes have also been reported from some parts of the city and the state over water.
Usual water sources, Red Hills, Sholavaram and Chemabarambakkam lakes have fully dried up. The four major reservoirs water levels have dipped below zero. Out of more than 6,000 lakes and ponds on the city outskirts only 3,896 now remain while, city’s own 150 water bodies have disappeared.
According to a report by the BBC, Chennai’s metro system has stopped using air conditioning at its stations. Public toilets in places such as malls have also reportedly stopped functioning.
THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE
The state government announced a 220-km train that would run from Jolarpettai to Chennai carrying water every day. The 50-wagon train will make four trips daily to supply 10 mld of water and cost the government Rs 65 crore per day.
In addition, Kerela has to provide 20 lakh litres of water per day and the Cauvery Water Management
Authority has asked Karnataka to release water to Tamil Nadu. Reports also state that authorities have decided to approach Andhra Pradesh for seeking its share of water from the Krishna River.
The government has also reportedly issued an order to take up traditional water body restoration scheme to improve the groundwater table. It has allotted Rs 212 crore for digging deep borewells, according to reports.
According to a recent NITI Aayog report, 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020 if usage continues at the current rate. Learning their lessons from the Chennai crisis, other metropolitan cities should wake up now.
SHORT-SIGHTED MEASURE IN PLACE OF LONG-TERM STRATEGIES
The stop-gap arrangements will soon be forgotten, when things temporarily go back to normal. Instead
government needs to find systemized solutions and developing deeply ingrain practices in the system to
prevent future crisis. For instance, after the alarming Chennai floods, no consistent actions have been deployed to clear wetlands or regain fast disappearing water bodies In 2000, rainwater harvesting (RWH) policy was initiated which mandated that building approval for new dwellings were not to be granted unless the building plan included a RWH component. The order also mandated that
all existing buildings in Tamil Nadu install RWH structures. Sixteen years later, an audit by the non-governmental organization Rain Centre has shown that most government buildings in Chennai do not have a functioning RWH structure.
The time has come, that all state governments should now monitor and regulate groundwater. Water supply should be measured and priced progressively, similar to the electricity tariff, where the quantity of use determines the price.