Running out of water, and time: Chennai can no longer depend only on surface and groundwater sources
Chennai’s water woes have faded from news headlines in the last few weeks. Everyday some bit of good news has been trickling in ever since the skies opened up at the end of August after a gap of 400 days. The Southwest monsoon has eased the city’s water crisis as it brought a surplus of 30% rainfall in September, the highest since 2014. The two neighbouring states, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, have been more than willing to release water from their overflowing rivers, Krishna and Kaveri, to feed Chennai’s water reservoirs.
Chennai’s water crisis went global when Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio tweeted about it in June. The Washington Post and other Western papers and TV channels too gave it prominence with pictures of women waiting to collect water with colourful plastic pots. The crisis caught everybody’s imagination.
However, women waiting for water is not a new phenomenon. Even during years when the monsoon doesn’t fail and Chennai doesn’t run dry, women still have to use pots to take water home from corporation storage containers. Tap water has not been available for slum and tenement dwellers even in the heart of the city. Women have had to climb several floors to take water up to their tiny flats. Men who are usually under an alcoholic stupor cannot wake up early enough to fill containers.
According to 2011 Census, Chennai had a population of 8.24 million. Now it is possibly a little over 10 million. The city does not have a perennial water source. There are four lakes outside the city that are fed mostly by rains from the Northeast monsoon. On June 18, 2019, they all ran dry, leaving the city in severe crisis.
The city’s average rainfall is 1,400mm. After the floods of 2015, when Chennai nearly went under water, there were hopes that acute water shortage will not occur for several years. That was not to be. With two successive droughts and no rain for 400 days, Chennai reached its ‘day zero’ in June when all its four major reservoirs ran dry.
Chennai Metrowater’s total water supply for the people is about 830 million litres per day (MLD). The reservoirs supply 65% of the water. Groundwater accounts for 9%, desalinated seawater 16%, and 10% reclaimed wastewater comprises the rest. In June, the total supply got reduced to less than half. Desalinated water, Veeranam Lake and some peripheral sources helped Metrowater supply driblets of water when Chennai was fast drying up.
There have been frenetic rainwater harvesting (RWH) activities to charge fast depleting groundwater. Installation of RWH systems and upgrading existing ones are big businesses now. So is domestic borewell digging. Communities are also attempting to desilt and rejuvenate many small water bodies. Water experts say that these are necessary initiatives to recharge groundwater, but are not the solutions for the city’s water crisis.
There have been similar crises many times. By the 1990s, the state government started working on several water augmentation schemes and came up with some solutions in the 2000s. The supply of water from Veeranam Lake in Cuddalore district to Chennai to meet the city’s drinking water requirement and the Telugu Ganga scheme to bring Krishna river in Andhra to Chennai were completed in the middle of 2000s. A 100 MLD desalination plant went operational in 2013. RWH was made compulsory for all households.
The authorities rise to the occasion whenever there is a crisis and come up with innovative solutions like bringing water by train, finding water in quarries, and so on. These have been patchy and temporary solutions. This year’s crisis has showed that Chennai can no longer depend only on surface water and groundwater sources. To do something more permanent and climate independent, strong political will is required.
Worldwide water use for agriculture is 70%. In India it is 90%. Even in Chennai metropolitan area it is 80%. Households consume only 10%. India is known to be highly inefficient consumer of water for agriculture. Drip irrigation has not been given as much attention as it should have been in the state. Tamil Nadu should get more serious about changing cropping patterns to grow less water-intensive crops. Experts say that farmers should be persuaded to switch over to reclaimed wastewater wherever possible for irrigating non-food crops. The state government has to start giving priority to conserve and preserve water usage for agriculture.
Wastewater treatment has to be given priority. Water-short countries are moving rapidly to recycling wastewater for all uses. K Ashok Vardhan Shetty, IAS, former chairman of Chennai Metrowater, says, “Even if 30% of Chennai’s present quantity of wastewater is reclaimed for reuse, an additional 250 MLD of water will be available. Reclaimed wastewater should be mandated for non-potable uses in industries, construction, gardening and landscaping, large apartment blocks, and so on.”
Poor water pricing has been a major problem. It has resulted in inefficient use of water, lack of funds for improving infrastructure and investing in new technologies which are now available and are cost-effective. Free and highly subsidised water is no longer viable. Water pricing is a difficult decision for a state that believes in freebies. Shetty says that as water metering in households is near impossible, Metrowater must install metres at various transmission and distribution points to identify precisely where leakages occur.
The city is dependent on the Northeast monsoon, which is a few days away. If it fails again, Chennai will be in dire straits. It’s time the government and communities came together with the help of technology to work on long-lasting solutions.