Chennai: The city is in panic mode. In the face of an acute water crisis, schools have been shut, hotels have refused catering and IT companies have asked their employees to work from home. The normal lives of ordinary citizens have been hit. The sight of a cluster of colourful plastic pots lined up around any water tank on any street in Chennai is proof.
“It has been weeks since I had a decent night’s sleep,” says S. Jothi, a homemaker in Saidapet, an area in the city’s centre. “We never know when water will come and that we had to be prepared for it.”
Matters are worse in suburban localities. For example, at the BBR Nagar welfare association in Chromepet, which has about 150 houses, over 30 days have passed since there has been water.
“I am a pensioner and am spending Rs 5,000 on water every week,” says M.C. Balaraman, an office-bearer with the association. He is 80 years old and says he hasn’t been witness to a “worse drought” in his lifetime.
“We have lost all hope of seeing water in the near future – unless there is a miracle.”
Incidents of violence have been reported in disputes over water across Chennai and other districts. A man named Anand Babu of Thanjavur, the delta region, as irony would have it, was recently murdered after he raised questions against a distributor about another person getting extra pots of water.
The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) recently organised a series of protests demanding that the state government address the crisis. However, the state responded by organising yagnas to propitiate the rain gods. Reports suggest that S.P. Velumani, the municipal administration minister, also set up prayer sessions at mosques and churches.
D. Jayakumar accused the DMK of politicising the issue and said the state was taking steps to right the situation. “There is only a water deficit, not drought,” he told journalists in Chennai.
His government – of the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) – placed the blame on the below-normal rainfall, adding that it had seen the problem coming and so had declared 24 districts as hit by ‘hydrological drought’. It has already allocated about Rs 900 crore to resolve the crisis.
However, observers feel both parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, should work together towards a solution.
“The Centre has not been releasing enough funds to tide over this crisis. The political parties should stop this blame-game and work hand-in-hand to solve the issue,” Priyan Srinivasan, a journalist and political commentator, said. “The Bharatiya Janata Party president Tamilisai Soundararajan says yagnas have helped [bring on the] rains. Does that mean the state government is not doing anything else?”
Ideally, the parties should stop bringing the gods into this issue and find [workable] solutions.”
If this sounds like a desperate suggestion, it’s only because the times also warrant it. All four reservoirs that provide water to Chennai – Poondi, Red Hills, Sholavaram and Chembarambakkam – are completely dry.
Many experts also don’t buy that the rainfall alone didn’t precipitate the ongoing emergency. Only four years ago, the Chembarambakkam reservoir was overflowing with water, which city officials eventually dealt with by releasing it into the streets of Chennai, flooding the city. But today, Chembarambakkam is nearly bone-dry. People living in and around the lake say officials should desilt the water-body or it won’t be able to story any water, but, in the words of one, “the government has failed to do it”.
“The rainfall has been around 800 mm against the average of 1,350 mm,” S. Janakarajan, a water expert and former professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, explained. “Chennai has seen worse and has managed it.”
He calls whatever is happening now the result of a ‘drought accumulation stress’. “It is the result of errors committed over the last two decades; the effect of the steps that we had failed to take,” he said.
In other words, India’s fourth-largest city is also currently its most parched because of “human error”.
“Within Chennai, at least 350 lakes have disappeared. Pallikaranai, located at the city’s southern edge is an ecological hotspot but it has shrunk to 2,000 hectares from 7000 hectares,” he said.
In fact, Janakarajan continued, Chennai receives more rain than many other cities in the country that “have not faced a drought”.
On paper, the state has spent more than Rs 20,000 crore on water-saving initiatives since 1985, but there is little to nothing to show for it on the ground. “The state says it has desilted the lakes, which means they should be able to store water. It beats me why this is not happening,” Janakarajan said.
In all, Chennai needs about 12 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water every year. “Desilting all four reservoirs” should have increased their water storage capacity “up to 15 TMC, which is more than sufficient to satisfy Chennai’s needs,” S. Thirunavukkarasu, former engineer at the Public Works Department, said.
Following a meeting on June 21 in which ministers reviewed the state’s water distribution system, the Tamil Nadu government announced that it would arrange to bring 10 million litres of drinking water from Jolarpet, in Vellore, to Chennai every day by rail to meet its needs. However, Durai Murugan, a senior DMK leader, said the party would launch massive protests if any water was taken from Jolarpet, even as Velumani contended that doing so wouldn’t affect Jolarpet’s people and businesses in any way.
But as a matter of principle, Thirunavukkarasu believes it would be unfair to “exploit the resources of other districts to meet Chennai’s needs”, and there are “enough and more ways to solve Chennai’s water crisis”.
One of them is to better maintain the lakes from which Chennai draws its water, and another is to address groundwater depletion. Nineteen of Tamil Nadu’s 33 districts have reported lower groundwater levels this year; that is 16 more than last year. According to a Niti Aayog report, Chennai is among 21 cities in the country where groundwater is expected to disappear by 2020. And “unless the situation is reversed, it is going to be worse,” Thirunavukkarasu says.
This is evidently going to be an uphill climb for the city’s as well as the state’s government considering Chennai’s growing population and other attendant challenges. Even as the city’s metropolitan water-supply office desperately seeks alternative solutions, officials maintain that only rains can bring any relief.
“We are looking for abandoned quarries in neighbouring districts from which to collect water. There is also a proposal to treat sewage water for Chennai’s needs,” one official said. “It is a crisis, yes, and we are trying our best. But unless it rains, things are not going to be normal.”
Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.