In front of the A3 gate of AG-DMS metro station on Wednesday, one could see a pool of water, following rain on the previous night. At a distance of about 100 metre, and one could find a slum consisting over100 families residing in small rooms thatched with used flex and broken tiles. There, one could see a few women sitting outside their homes, patiently waiting for the water tankers to come. “We get water on alternate days. Ten pots for one family for Rs 10,” said Saleema, a resident from the slum, while speaking to NewsClick.
These contrasting visuals show us the grim reality of Chennai.
On June 20, it rained in Chennai after a long dry spell of about 200 days. Throughout the week, it drizzled in certain parts of the city. The temperature went down and people were relieved from the scorching heat wave. But the length of the queue for water did not get any shorter. Evidently, the water crisis in Tamil Nadu is not something a few showers can solve.
The current situation
The city witnessed a crisis after Perur lake – a major water source for Chennai – dried up. With even the last of the water reservoirs dried up, the people in the state are facing unprecedented issues. The state economy is getting affected, schools are being closed and people are being asked to work from home because their companies have no water to provide to them. From slums to gated colonies, every class of people is facing the ire of the long summer. Since the Chennai metro water cannot meet the people’s demand, they are relying heavily on the private tankers.
According to the Central Water Commission's bulletin on weekly reservoir water levels, the Southern region – comprising Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala – has about 11% of total live storage capacity. The report stated: "[T]he total live storage available in these reservoirs is 5.48 BCM which is 11% of total live storage capacity of these reservoirs. The storage during corresponding period of last year was 15% and average storage of last ten years during corresponding period was 15% of live storage capacity of these reservoirs. Thus, storage during the current year is less than the corresponding period of last year and is also less than the average storage of last ten years during the corresponding period."
Though the city has been facing long summers and drought situations, the people never were affected this badly. According to local media reports, about four schools were closed due to the severe water scarcity. The IT firms along the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) have reportedly asked its employees to work from home.
"Instead of directly asking the employees to work from home, companies are coming up with situations that would make them work from home voluntarily," says Alagunambi Welkin, general secretary, Union of IT & ITES Employees (UNITE). "They switch off the air conditioners, restrict water availability in restrooms, restrict availability of drinking water etc. And the employees naturally opt for working from home."
Some companies are allegedly using even contaminated water collected from sources of non-drinkable water. The ‘work from home’ arrangement is costly for the employees, as they face the same water crisis at home as well.
The people residing along OMR are complaining about the skyrocketed prices for water tankers. The IT giants in this area are placing high bids on water tankers which leads to prices going way up. The tankers which cost upto Rs 600 are now costing a couple of thousands in certain areas.
The small-time hotels are closing down in many parts.
What the government is doing
In an interview with The Hindu, secretary in the Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department, Harmander Singh had revealed that the government is exploring all possibilities including cloud seeding. He had also said that the state is talking with manufacturers designing technology to produce water from humidity.
But in another instance, Municipality and Rural administration Minister S P Velumani has underplayed the whole crisis, saying it is based on “manipulated reports”. He said that certain people are spreading false information and that the situation is not that bad.
However, according to reports, Chennai city alone is getting 525 Million litres per Day (MLD) instead of its requirement of 830 MLD. The government is identifying new water resources, and is already commissioning a new water desalination plant. Currently, the state has one desalination plant with a capacity of 210 MLD. Another one with a capacity of 150 MLD is expected to start functioning soon and one with 400 MLD capacity is commissioned to start functioning by the end of next year.
The state government has also set up a monitoring committee for water supply-related issues. When asked about the IT companies' plight, Velumani said that the government is willing to assist the firms in any way possible.
The natural disaster
Environmental activist Nithyanand Jayaraman termed this crisis as a natural disaster while talking to NewsClick.
“Chennai has always moved from one water crisis to another. It has treated its water and water bodies very badly. This will get only worse. The government is making the same mistakes again and again. This is not just a water crisis. This is a natural crisis. It is an environmental crisis where we have damaged the environment to a point where it is beginning to hurt us,” he explained.
Jayaraman pointed out that the solutions the state government is proposing are going to adversely affect the nature in the long term.
“They are talking about drilling borewells in Neyveli and sucking out that water and the groundwater will be dried. Then, they are planning desalination plants, which are extremely bad for the beaches and inland water bodies. Because when you flatten the sandy beaches to construct desalination plants, you are actually facilitating intrusion of sea water into the groundwater. In the name of solutions, we are making things worse for ourselves and eventually the city will die,” he added.
“This is a crisis by the government,” said Sunderrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal (friends of nature). “Chennai got about 800 mm of rain in the previous year against the average of 1200 mm. It is not a small number. The number of rainy days has come down because of the climate change and I am not denying that. The problem lies somewhere in the management. Chennai alone needs 12 tmc of water. If we are maintaining our four lakes properly and in full capacity, we get about 11 tmc of water. There are other small lakes as well here.”
Sunderrajan also emphasised the fact that desalination plants are not a solution. “Wastewater recycling is the solution. It is very cost effective and does not cause any major environmental hazards. Desalination completely destroys marine life,” he added.
We need to learn how to respect water and also how to harvest rainwater, opines Jayaraman. “Ensure that there is plenty of space left from where the water can be absorbed. Also, it should be kept clean and vegetated. We must look at the cities and all its open spaces as infrastructure for water. The government must work with the people to make sure that there is maintenance of water structures in their water area,” he said.
The irreplaceable commodity
The WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) explains water as an irreplaceable commodity. In a report published in January 2019, the WWF Indian chapter observed that close to 40% of the gross credit exposure of Indian banks is in sectors where water risks are significant.
The report stated: “With more than 90% of total water consumption in India coming from the agricultural sector, water scarcity and drought are key issues for this sector. Beside this, other water-related issues such as climate variability, saltwater intrusion in coastal regions, flooding, changes in regulations around water withdrawals can affect the Agri & Allied activities.”
According to a recent report published by NITI Aayog, 21 Indian cities including Chennai will run out of ground water by 2020. More than 600 million people are facing acute water shortages. Critical groundwater resources – which account for 40% of the country's water supply – are being depleted at unsustainable rates. Eighty-four per cent rural households do not have piped water access. Seventy per cent of water is contaminated resulting in nearly 2,00,000 deaths each year. India is currently ranked 120 among 122 countries in the water quality index.
Unless the governments take some proactive measures to contain the situation, the future looks very bleak for the metro people.
Also read: Drinking Water Crisis in Karnataka Persists, Forces Schools in Udupi to Stall Mid-Day Meal Scheme