We Parched the Country to Quench the City, and Chennai Still Cries for Help

Chennai swings from a flood one year to a water crisis the next without realising that the manner in which the city has abused water to grow is at the heart of both problems.

Thirty-four year old G. Manimaran is resentful when anyone brings up the topic of Chennai’s water crisis. In his analyses, water is not the problem, the city of Chennai is. Manimaran’s village, Padalam in Kanchipuram district, is 75 km from Chennai and located on the banks of the Palar, a river once famed for its deep sandy bed and rich groundwater resources.

Real estate tycoons mined the sand to fuel Chennai’s real estate boom, lowering groundwater levels in the region. Bottling units, cola companies and alcohol distilleries mined the water to supply rural and urban consumers. “We live so close to Palar, but even I have a water problem. The water in my tap is orange in colour, like Mirinda, and I am forced to pay 10 rupees for 20 litres of drinking water,” Manimaran says.

Chennai’s growth has come at the cost of water and the spaces that nurture water. Between 1980 and 2010, the built-up area in Chennai grew from 47 sq. km to 402 sq. km, even as wetlands declined from 186 to 71.5 sq. km, according to one study by Care Earth, an NGO in the city.

All for growth

The city ran out of water more than a century ago. In 1876, the British took over a small ery in an agricultural town called Puzhal, now at the northwestern edge of the metropolis. From its original 500 million cubic feet (mcft), its capacity was increased in steps to 3,300 mcft. This tank, since renamed the Red Hills reservoir, was the first of many centralised water projects.

As technology advanced, local efforts to maintain local landscapes and the subsurface as an infrastructure for water declined – as did the people’s dependence on local water and relationship to the land. Chennai swings from a flood one year to a water crisis the next without realising that the manner in which the city has abused water to grow is at the heart of both problems. Capitalising on the people’s disconnect with nature, governments and private profiteers used disasters and crises as opportunities to usher in socially oppressive, big-budget and hare-brained projects like desalination and interlinking of rivers.

Like Padalam, Sulerikattukuppam, a fishing hamlet an hour’s drive from Chennai, is another “solution-impacted” community. Until 2011, the villagers had sweet water flowing out of their shallow hand-pumps. But that changed when officials began constructing a 100 million litres/day (MLD) seawater desalination plant to supply water to the IT corridor in the city’s south.

Also read: Who is to Blame for the Tamil Nadu Water Crisis?

Workers levelled the dunes that sustained the subsurface water. To lay the foundation, they were instructed to run massive pumps 24 × 7 for months to pull out the freshwater that flowed from the surrounding sands into the deep foundation pits. Structures built into the sea for plant construction triggered sea erosion, which rapidly ate away the beach and brought the sea dangerously close to the fisherfolk’s homes.

Water from the hand-pumps turned saline, and the hyper-saline rejects that the water factory dumped into the sea drove the fish away. Now, the fishermen have no fish and no water. They rely on expensive bottled water. Meanwhile, the desalinated water bypasses the village and rushes to quench the thirst of an IT corridor built on Chennai’s precious Pallikaranai marshlands.

Unmindful of the damage rendered by the existing desalination plants, the Tamil Nadu government plans to set up two more: a 150-MLD plant with funds from Germany’s KfW and a 400 MLD plant with Japanese support. The latter is expected to usher in Japanese investments in the Chennai-Bengaluru Industrial Corridor (CBIC).

As it happens, CBIC will pave over the Ennore wetlands in the city’s north and run right through the groundwater-rich agrarian sprawl of the Araniyar-Kosasthalaiyar Basin in Thiruvallur district. It will also degrade the infrastructures of natural water and replace them with dystopian industrial waste-scapes.

Killing a river

A UN report, by the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, warned when it was released in May 2019 that depletion of biodiversity and water resources and degradation of marine and terrestrial habitats have brought the planet to the brink of ecological collapse.

Humanity is left with no wiggle room. Any intervention – whether in the name of development, poverty alleviation or national security – will hasten our rendezvous with doomsday unless it is designed to improve our natural environment. All future interventions must meaningfully increase the availability of natural surface and ground water, enhance biodiversity, enrich local economies and fortify the land’s ability to withstand the horrible, and inevitable, climate shocks.

The disease of viewing water in isolation as a single-dimensional resource, and its availability or scarcity as a solution or problem, has a short history. From around 500 CE up until the British crown sank its teeth into the Tamil countryside, the region’s early settlers had carved out more than 6,000 ponds and elegantly engineered the irrigation tanks we call the ery. Born in a rain-dependent agrarian culture, these multi-use waterbodies were designed to enhance biodiversity and increase availability of natural water.

The palmyra-fringed tank bunds were a microhabitat for plants and animals. The wetland was the basis for multiple economies and cultures. Potters, fishers, hunters, farmers, weavers, toddy tappers, reed-workers and gatherers found succour in these wetland complexes. Irrigation channels and canals linking streams or rivers to engineered wetlands were seldom lined, allowing life to thrive and water to percolate and reappear as springs and streams further downstream. Water was more than just H2O.

Modernity changed that. Civil engineers replaced artisanal engineers who had been educated by their local cultures, ecologies and geographies.

Also read: Digging For Water in Tamil Nadu

In 1941, the then mayor S. Satyamurti deftly negotiated the construction of a massive drinking water reservoir in Poondi, 50 km from Chennai. In 1942, the government built a dam at a fork in the Kosasthalaiyar River, at the point where the Cooum river split off as a distributary. The entire flow of the Kosasthalaiyar was diverted to Poondi and from there to Chennai.

Between 1941 and 1951, Chennai’s population increased to 1.4 million with a decadal growth of 82% – but this came at a cost.

The Cooum now runs dry for the first 40 km of its course. The river bed here resembles a healthy scrub jungle replete with stands of tall, slow-growing palmyra. The flow begins at Thiruverkadu, where the Cooum enters Chennai city. Hereon it is a river of sewage. “The Cooum did not die; it was killed,” says Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, amateur historian and chronicler of Chennai’s heritage.

If Chennai wishes to have a future, it must shrink in size and population. That must be done not by forcing people out. Instead, the government should create land-friendly economic opportunities for people willing to migrate out to Tamil Nadu’s vast hinterland. It is futile to try and engineer one’s way out of ecological collapse. Local landscapes must be healed. Water must be harvested where it falls.

Chennai’s defining element is water: the seas, the rains and the rainlessness. Our problem is not merely about demand and supply of water but a broken relationship with water and land. Unless Chennai repairs its relationship with nature, the city is doomed to drown in a watery grave or turn into a waterless desert.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.