Chennai water crisis: When natural causes meet man-made ones

Last Updated: Tue, Jun 25, 2019 15:16 hrs
Chennai water crisis

As one of India’s largest cities is running out of water for its lakhs of inhabitants, Chennai’s four main reservoirs are at a storage level of less than 1%. According to the Central Water Commission, there is a 41% rainfall deficit this year till mid-June. The Indian Express editorial paints a grim picture –

Chennai is amongst the 21 Indian cities which the Niti Aayog fears will run out of groundwater by 2020. The city’s water crisis bares a critical challenge for the new Jal Shakti ministry. In the past five years, Chennai’s water supply has consistently fallen short of the city’s requirement.

As the forecast for the monsoon wasn’t good, the city’s reservoirs over the last year more lost more than 3 billion cubic meters of water. One of the main reasons for this is poor water management and a rapidly expanding urban population. The city has four main reservoirs - Poondi, Cholavaram, Puzhal and Malayambakkam.

The failure of the northeast monsoon last year and pre-monsoon showers this year have contributed towards the crisis as the government has stated. Back in 2003, in an effort to avoid a situation like the one Chennai faces now, the government under then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa made it mandatory to build rain water harvesting structures in all buildings. As Dinamalar reports, a new audit plan in 2014 was introduced to help ensure that these facilities would be properly installed but it hasn’t been implemented –

The CMDA, Chennai Metropolitan Development Group, was given the responsibility of implementing the scheme announced by Jayalalithaa as Chief Minister. However, the project is yet to be implemented and has been paralyzed. CMDA officials have now come forward to implement the rainwater collection audit program.

After the devastating floods in 2015, a parliamentary panel was put in place to look into causes of the disaster and the report highlighted how this was man-made. In the years leading up to 2015, the city’s wetlands and agricultural lands have shrunk. The panel stated that large scale real estate projects had destroyed a good portion of water bodies in the city. The city’s ever-expanding footprint is a reason that the demand for water is high especially in commercial districts where large IT firms and factories reside, in addition to large residential complexes.

In another city in the state, Madurai, power outages and breaking of pipes has affected the supply of water. As Dinamalar reports, the Madurai Drinking Water Board has urged residents to adhere to the rainwater harvesting program. In its meeting, the Board’s Director Maheswaran stated in part, “Water supply is being supplied through 556 joint drinking water projects at a cost of Rs 311 crore in scarce areas in Tamil Nadu.” In addition to this, Rs.20 crores have been allotted for the supply of water through tankers for villages.

A consequence of this water crisis is commercial establishments such as hotels and restaurants have been affected. R. Srinivasan, the Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Hotels Association said in part, “It is a major crisis faced by the hotels in Chennai and also in other parts of the state. With rains failing, the prices of vegetables have gone up. Further with the severe water shortage, the hoteliers are facing a very touchy situation.”

Dailythanthi reports that the number of trucks bringing in vegetables has reduced as many areas of cultivable land have gone dry and barren, leading to a rise in vegetable prices.

What’s become a common sight in many areas in the city is long ques of people waiting to get a pot of water from water tankers. IT firms have cut down on operations by asking some staff to work from home. Hospitals are among the establishments that are suffering due to the water crisis. According to a Dinakaran report, government hospitals in particular bear the brunt when it comes to number of patients and hence the water shortage has affected. Borewells have been set up on location for water supply in addition to the state government supplying water through Drinking Water Supply Board trucks.

The opposition party led by MK Stalin has sharply criticised the AIADMK government for the current water crisis calling for the resignation of Municipal Administration Minister S P Velumani. The Madras High Court has asked the state government for a report on the current crisis. Meanwhile, the government issued an order on restoring traditional water bodies at a cost of Rs. 500 crore and implementing this in 29 districts.

With the rain water harvesting plan not up to the mark, there are a few ways to ensure a water shortage crisis as severe as this dos not occur. Though, this can be difficult as expanding population, acute rainfall deficits to name a few ensure that water doesn’t always reach everyone. One possible solution could be desalination plants. M.R. Subramani, Executive Editor, Swarajya, writes on why this could be seen as a potential solution –

The state government has set up two desalination plants that together provide 200 Million litres a Day (MLD) a day, while two more are in the pipeline with a total capacity to supply another 550 MLD. According to Frost and Sullivan, the costs of treating desalinated water is higher than water from other sources… such a source can be seen only as a short-term solution.

The situation isn’t looking good as the government rejected the Kerala government’s offer to help ease the crisis. The opposition staged a protest. The state government’s solution is to bring in trains carrying water from Vellore. This, days after Chief Minister K Palaniswami downplayed the situation by asking the media not to create an illusion of water scarcity. For any long-term solution to work, there needs to be strict rules and enforcement on encroaching into water bodies and marshlands by private entities. As Chennai largely depends on groundwater to meet its needs, maintaining the status quo isn’t the right way forward.

More columns by Varun Sukumar