This summer, the ghosts of lessons learnt from the Chennai floods of December 2015 have come back to haunt Tamil Nadu, as it battles a water crisis that shows no signs of abating anytime soon. Satellite images and photographs of Chennai’s four main reservoirs – Poondi, Red Hills (Puzhal), Cholavaram and Chembarambakkam – show parched, cracked earth where a reassuring blue mass was visible in the past. Even before impassioned analyses from activists and environmentalists started coming in, it was evident that this crisis was years in the making, with deterioration and mismanagement of the region’s existing water systems, let alone planning for newer better ones.
Unlike a power cut, a ‘water cut’ doesn’t offer the leisurely possibility of shooting the breeze outdoors with neighbours and family. There is, after all, water to be fetched, bought, purified, arranged for the evening or the next day. Still, we must make time for conversation, for the conservation about water, what meanings we hold for it, how we relate to it and access it.
As many Chennaiites know from experience, the four reservoirs tell only part of the story. In fact, Chennai Metrowater’s centralised supply, according to a 2006 academic survey, accounted for only 30% of water needs in an average home. It is, as we know anecdotally, groundwater that fulfilled 46% of a household’s water needs, and 23% came from tankers, public pumps and taps. Yes, that information is a bit dated. But, we do not have routine data on the total volume of water consumed in the city as there isn’t an agency directly monitoring private borewells.
Those four reservoirs are indeed useful to recharge groundwater as well, but more so is the distributed network of tanks and canals (aeri and kaalvai) that have disappeared over the years and continue to be built over. The photos below were taken in the layout behind the Pallikaranai marshland conservation area in January this year.
The word karanai in Tamil refers to one of the many types of landscape features that water flowed through: from a monsoon-fed aeri through a thaangal or yenthal all the way to a kulam or kuttai.
This flow allowed water to seep underground, which meant that when the city spread south, there was fresh water available in even shallow borewells. But the very process of urbanisation cut off water flows such that during the monsoons, water seeps only just below the surface. It just about lasts until the next annual replenishment. So, when there’s a monsoon failure or merely less than bountiful rain, the groundwater that much of the city uses dries up very quickly.
The tankers that became ubiquitous after the 2002-03 water crisis are run by Metrowater as well as private companies. Metrowater has licensed well-fields in Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram districts, from where it plies tankers to fill up storage tanks for buildings that request it. Private tankers simply fill up water from any of the many aeris that dot the hinterland, leasing from local landowners or administrations. These aeris are also fast deteriorating because the interlinked flows they depend on have been cut off due to decline in agriculture and the social contracts that come with it.
Are citizens merely ‘consumers’ of water?
The Madras high court and citizen critics may be referring to this ad-hoc and unregulated development of water infrastructure when they direct their ire at the Tamil Nadu government for failing to plan and provision for the city. Governments in Tamil Nadu and other states certainly do have a lot to answer for, given their rampant encroachment of wetlands and other water bodies. However, by identifying the problem in ‘planning’ or ‘governance’, we end up seeking administrative solutions to what has always been a political problem. If only an authority somewhere could plan and manage water effectively, the thinking goes. In this type of water governance, the average citizen is merely a ‘user’ or, worse still, ‘consumer’ of water.
Governments certainly seem to prefer it this way. The TN government, for instance, under various Dravidian incarnations, has wanted to be the provider of water, even if it hasn’t necessarily been successful. Famous water projects, whether it is ‘Telugu Ganga’ or Veeranam, or the construction of the Chembarambakkam reservoir and the two desalination plants, are credited to governments under specific leaders. As R.K. Radhakrishnan’s excellent Frontline report after the 2015 floods noted, there is a tendency to deify the leader of the day as a patron for bringing water to cities as well as agricultural lands. Social scientists have called this phenomenon ‘techno-populism’ for technology is used to build trust.
Even this patron-client relationship is now threatened as entire water systems are contracted out to external consultants or consortia of expertise, as with Coimbatore’s water supply, where the public utility will become a billing and customer service centre. This is what the Union government’s ‘Intergrated Water Resource Management’ agenda has meant in other parts of the world. As Chennai’s crisis becomes a symbol of climate change worldwide, water appears to be drawn more into global webs of expertise and distanced more from everyday life of the city.
The socio-material condition of water
It is said that water is ‘socio-material’ or ‘socio-technical’. This means that water flow systems, whether agricultural or urban, are shaped by social relations as much as by ecological processes or engineering technologies. The pre-colonial system of aeris and their connecting kaalvai’s were also a feat of engineering. But, historians have noted that those systems were sustained because of the hierarchies of labour, kinship and rule that existed at the time. Traditional systems did often involve coercive labour and exploitative social relationships including caste, of which we would be rightly wary today. But, that’s no reason to corporatise our relationship with water.
Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu do not have a great record on environmental politics. But they have been good at mobilising historical identities towards articulating a progressive idea of our future, even if in rhetoric. By this, I mean, we should certainly expect the state government and political parties to step in and address the water crisis. But, they wouldn’t get very far by building more ‘projects’ or contracting out more services. They would, instead, need to mobilise local communities with narratives of culture and history; with environmental politics that carries the promise of social empowerment through basic resources like water and land. In short, water needs to become a political, not a governance issue. To reach that point, we need to start engaging with water as a social and political thing, not merely a service that the government is expected to deliver. Volunteer organisations and activist networks have already been doing this, of course.
This isn’t as abstract as it sounds. For instance, Metrowater’s own engineers do this on a regular basis – since their job is primarily to distribute water at the neighbourhood-level, they negotiate between various social pressures and power groups in their ‘area’; or ‘ward’ in the case of corporation engineers. Their work is seldom simply one of delivering a material thing through technological means. It involves engaging with water as also a social thing. If engineers can do it within their limited mandate, why not political parties? After all, government is as much about politics as about governance; and what is the function of politics if not to link the social and material?
Niranjana is a journalist turned urban geographer. Her PhD thesis was on Chennai’s water infrastructure.