Chennai: A Parched Metropolis

Published : Jul 01, 2019 10:12 am | By: M D Sridharan

With water in Chennai’s major reservoirs dwindling fast and ground water depleting and no respite from scorching sun, Chennai is facing the worst water crisis in the last 70 years. The people of Chennai are staring at a massive drought.

Chennai, India’s fourth largest city and the Southern metropolis is known for hot summers. Heat and humidity are inseparable in Chennai. But, in the last decade or so,   it is not that the Chennaites worry about the sweltering heat during the summer months that shoots up the temperature and makes the life tougher in the metropolis. Cometh every summer, cometh water woes for millions of Chennaites.  It is the worry that is greater than the heat waves.  For the Chennaites, when the summer begins, worries about the water crisis also begin. The fear of water shortage looms large for every family and the water crisis is only getting bigger and bigger with each passing year. This year the water crisis has hit very hard and the metropolis is wilting under severe water crisis. With the sun showing no mercy as the temperature keep soaring even at the end of June,  the sweltering heat compound the problem and the spectre of drought looms over the metropolis.

This time, the shortage is severe and has affected both the residents and the corporates alike. The grim situation in Chennai is an alarming indication of its magnitude as the scarcity has indeed affected a wide cross section of industries in and around Chennai.  The water shortage has forced IT companies to scale down its operations and ordered nearly 20,000 employees to work from home. Many guest houses, mansions and ladies hostels have been temporarily shut down. Many medium and small sized restaurants have closed down their lunch (meals) services. Many hotels have switched to use and throw paper plates from metal plates to save water. In the past few weeks, water expenditure of hotels has gone up by 25% as private tankers limited their supply. Buckets and mugs have replaced taps in several hotels due to the worsening water scarcity.

With severe water crisis and consequential increase in prices of vegetables eating into their margins, several small and medium- eateries are affected. It is estimated that there are around 9,000-odd small and medium sized hotels in the city. As all essential activities, such as cooking and cleaning are completely dependent on water, most of these eateries are now compelled to buy water at double the price compared to couple of months ago. Even if some of these hotel owners can afford the cost, the real problem is that there is no water available, says the hotel owners’ association.  

As the city is finding it difficult to deal with the crippling water crisis and even the healthcare industry is severely hit. The crisis is so acute that some hospitals are grappling for water and cut down on water consumption. Worst even the operations have been rescheduled for the arrival of water tankers. Both the patients and their care takers are put to severe hardships.

It is very unfortunate that once the sprawling city boasted of over 60 water bodies with large swathes of green cover. Three rivers - the Cooum, the Adyar, and the Kosasthalaiyar - flow through Chennai into the Bay of Bengal. The Buckingham canal connects all the three rivers. A study by the Anna University has also found that Chennai has lost 33 per cent of its wetlands in the last one decade. During the same period, Chennai lost 24 per cent agricultural land, crucial for improving groundwater table.

But today, as corrupt officials and politicians colluded, many of these water ways have disappeared. The greed of the politicians and land sharks have either shrunk many of these water bodies beyond recognition or completely filled and sold the land mass. Besides, the government too undertook many development projects on reclaimed water bodies. The most noteworthy of  such iconic structure is the famous “Valluvar Kottam, ”,  a monument  in memory of the great Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar constructed by the DMK government way back in 1970 reclaiming the land from the once famous Nungambakkam lake in the heart of the city. It is an irony that Thiruvalluvar stressed the importance of water in his universally acclaimed masterpiece “Thirukural”.

The residential areas of Chennai present a pathetic picture with hundreds of people queuing up with plastic pots and haplessly waiting for the metro water tankers to arrive. People brave the scorching sun and wait with batted breadth for the tankers. The water tankers have indeed become the lifeline of Chennai.

With most bore wells at the residential colonies running dry, the people are forced to rely on metro water for their daily needs. But with the demand exceeding the supply, people have to wait for two to three weeks to get their turn.   With the demand far outweighing the supply, which in turn has pushed up the prices. Further the acute shortage of water has forced the residents of Chennai to go for deeper bore wells. As the search for water is becoming more and more elusive in Chennai, the residents have no option but are forced to go for deeper bore wells.  The phenomenal increase in digging bore wells is further damaging the already plummeting groundwater level. 

Inefficient Government

Water shortages have led to protests erupting across Chennai as the Tamil Nadu state government came under fire from the Madras High Court over its mishandling of the crisis. There are four main reservoirs – Poondi, Chembarambakkam, Cholavaram and Red Hills - that cater to the Chennai’s water needs. But, the combined storage together holds 31 Mcft of water against a total full capacity of 11,257 Mcft, which is a mere 0.27% of the total water-holding capacity. Poondi reservoir has 30 Mcft and Chembarambakkam has one Mcft. The water level at Cholavaram and Red Hills lakes stands at zero. 

All four major reservoirs which supply the city have effectively run dry, leaving Chennaites dependent on either the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) or private vendors for their water needs. In both instances, there are week-long waits and high costs. This leaves hopes staked on the monsoon season – until which the suffering of citizens in the city looks poised to continue.

The metro water tankers line up to draw water from Veeranam, Red Hills, Chembarambakkam and Sholavaram lakes. Besides, they also draw water from desalination plants at Nemmeli and Minjur. These water sources are the lifeline for the 10.3 million people of Chennai. The gradually depleting water levels had pushed CMWSSB to depend on other sources including water from desalination plants and stone quarries in Kanchipuram district. The groundwater has severely been depleted due to overdrawing of metro water tankers.

On an average Tamil Nadu receives 96cm of rainfall. But, in 2018, it received only 81 cm.  Also, it’s been over 200 days since last December that there has been no rain in Chennai.  Normally during Jan-May Tamil Nadu receives about 10cm rain but it has received only 3.4cm. Overall it resulted in a drought like situation across Tamil Nadu., including its capital Chennai. The severity of the situation has already resulted in to drought in some parts of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil Nadu government has declared 17 districts of the state including Chennai as drought hit.

But the grave situation is the result of the failure of the monsoon?  Certainly not. It is the result of the gross negligence on the part of the ruling government. Over the years 100s of lakes and ponds have been surreptitiously taken by land sharks belong to both DMK and AIADMK . Though it was the DMK which eyed the water ways to make fortunes, the AIADMK also followed suit. Several prominent politicians from the Dravidian parties misused their powers to vastly improve their personal wealth. Undoubtedly the crisis is man-made and the politicians have let down the people. Lack of proper planning and absolute mis-management has turned Tamil Nadu in to a desert.

Is not the government aware that failure of monsoon will lead to a severe water crisis and possibly result in a draught?  Is it not the duty of the government to take appropriate steps when the monsoon failed?  But the state government was totally focused on the elections. In fact the government was a bit sceptic to conduct the Lok Sabha elections during April as they felt that that the impending water crisis would affect their chances. AIADMK even requested the Election Commission to postpone the election after the scorching summer. But he   Election Commission refused to oblige.

The crisis is human-induced. Had  the govt  initiated proper actions  much  before the start of the gruelling summer months  and started desilting at least some water bodies and  maintained them properly,   the situation would not have been as alarming as now. Decades of rapid landfills and siphoning off of wetlands and marshlands, has finally left Chennai and the suburbs reeling under the worst water crisis this year. The ever expanding metropolis has been wilting under the pressure of concretisation. For many residents of Chennai it remains as a puzzle as the city experienced a deluge in December 2015. Just in a matter of two and half years the same city looks bone dry.  Experts points out the callous attitude of the government and officials as they have miserably failed to conserve the enormous water that the city received in 2015. Chennai depends solely on the whims of the monsoons.

Experts point out that the proper maintenance of water bodies would have helped in groundwater recharge as well as water-storage capacity during rains.  Chennai and its neighbouring Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts have over 3,000 large and small water bodies. The fact remains that the four major reservoirs have not been desilted for over 10 yrs. Today, they are almost dried up. Now, the government has sanctioned Rs.500 Cr for desilting.

The government and the authorities have to be blamed for the catastrophic situation. They have failed to effectively deal with a crippling water shortage that has brought Chennai to a crisis point.  With poor water management coupled with unsupervised and uncontrolled groundwater extraction, experts point out the impending danger as the 10 million people are facing acute water shortage. The CWSSB has drastically cut down on the water supply.

Politics at Play

On the other hand, though the failure of the monsoon plays a major role in the Chennai’s worst water crisis, the interference of political parties cannot be ruled out. Without an iota of humanity, members of certain political parties are utilising the opportunity to extract money from the gullible public. These intermediaries aka local goons, of course with the blessings of their political bosses, are reaping personal gains by demanding money for a pot of water from the poor. Desperate times call for desperate measures and most locals are ready to go to any lengths to get water. Hence, they succumb to such politics.

Since state-run agencies have not been able to provide adequate water tankers, one has to go in for private tankers. But the cost is exorbitantly high. There exists an absolute nexus between private water suppliers and political class and the tanker mafia is operating in full swing in Chennai.  The government should step in to control the private suppliers and get them to fix their rates. The acute water shortage has forced the city to scramble for urgent solutions, including drilling new borewells several hundreds of feet deep.

Residents have to stand in line for hours to get water from government tanks, and restaurants have closed due to the lack of water. Tamil Nadu government has introduced token system in some areas and accordingly the residents are provided with a token to their allotted / rationed quota of water from the tankers.

Most of the families are managing their drinking and cooking needs with couple of pots of water in searing temperatures of more than 40C. Residents are forced to wait for municipal or private water tankers to bring drinking water, leaving little or no time to attend to other needs.

The water shortage in Chennai started several weeks ago and Madras’s high court has criticised the Tamil Nadu state government for inaction. The court accused the government of waiting passively for the arrival of the monsoon instead of proactively handling the water crisis which, it said, did not happen in a day.

Lack of Stringent Policies

 Though, currently it is the AIADMK which is in power, the fact remains that it is the collective policy paralysis for decades by both the Dravidian majors – DMK and AIADMK – are to be blamed. The failure of an effective water management on the water front is to blame. For instance, the government opened the IT Corridor and showered builders and IT companies with floor space benefits, but no thought was given to the source of water for drinking and regular use. Clearly rampant unplanned urban development has destroyed the wetlands around the city.

Nor has there been any political will to address the problem comprehensively. Politicians rely on the monsoon and when it is late, as it is this year, and when the rainfall is inadequate, as it has been for several years, there are no policies in place to compensate for the shortfall. The inadequate rainfall in past monsoons has led to groundwater levels plummeting.

But Tamil Nadu chief minister, Edappadi K Palaniswami, would like to downplay the grave situation and claims that the water crisis had been blown out of proportions by the opposition parties and the media. Simply pushing behind the callous attitude of his ministers and the mis-management of his government, he said that it is only in some areas people are facing the water shortage and residents would have to wait until the monsoon arrived.

Also, the ruling AIADMK government failed to augment water supply to Chennai. Be it Krishna water or Cauvery water. AIADMK government did not make any effort to meet the increasing water requirement by initiating meetings the respective governments – Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh - to bring water to Chennai. The government failed to take the initiatives and also did not strictly enforce the “Rain Water Harvesting” made mandatory by the former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. 

On the contrary, the main opposition party – DMK, rather than joining hands to alleviate the problem faced by the people, has decided to stage protests and thwart any attempt by the government to bring water to Chennai from other parts of Tamil Nadu.

It is time to take  proper steps and quench Chennai’s thirst and help people lead a normal life, if not Chennai will in all probability  get the  unique honour of becoming the  first Indian city to have gone dry.

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