Quick Fixes Are Worsening Chennai's Water Crisis

The city needs long-term measures like putting an end to rampant encroachment into wetlands and water recharge zones.

An article in The Hindu celebrates the fact that Metrowater – Chennai’s Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board – has arranged for a water train that will bring in 2.75 million litres of water from Jolarpet. Just the transportation component will cost the body Rs 8.67 lakh. That works out to Rs 3.17/litre, or Rs 3,170 per kilolitre (kl).

At that price, the water that arrives from Jolarpet is thrice as expensive as the water provided in the bubble-top plastic containers. This additional cost is merely for transportation. The costs of extraction at the source, pumping, treatment and distribution are not factored in. Distribution of this water through tanker lorries is a costly proposition, and will add to the financial burden of the city.

Compare the transportation cost – Rs 3,170/kl – of Jolarpet water with that from other sources. If you had your own well/borewell with sufficient water, your cost would be 1,000 times lower – about Rs 3/kl. Water from Redhills (when available) costs Rs 4/kl excluding distribution costs. Veeranam water costs Rs 22/kl, not counting distribution costs. Even desalinated water – already the most expensive option – costs Rs 45 per 1,000 litres or 5 paise/litre.

Desperate times require desperate measures, I agree with that. I do not wish to make the task of Metrowater officials more difficult. As it is they are dealing with a horrible situation created by the lapses of other departments of the city administration, namely the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, the Public Works Department, the Chennai Municipal Corporation, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority, the Chennai Rivers Restoration Trust etc.

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

That being said, the least Metrowater can do is to play an important role in influencing the activities of the city. It has, in fact, allowed rampant encroachment into wetlands and water recharge zones, and continues to do so.

I recently visited the Pallavaram Periya Eri (lake) and Keezhkattalai Eri. These historic tanks had already been scarred by the 200-ft radial road that bisects them. The southern side of the Pallavaram tank was choked with garbage from Pallavaram Municipality. Of what’s left of the tank constructed during the reign of the Pallavas, 100 feet on either side of the radial road was being encroached upon.

According to Jayshree Vencatesan of CARE Earth, the radial road expansion is a World Bank-funded project. An article in The News Minute confirms that this is part of the Rs 35 crore six-lane project funded by the World Bank. The project will eat into 40 acres of wetlands distributed in Pallavaram, Keezhkattalai and Narayanapuram tanks for the road construction.

People in the vicinity who may currently be getting water from their borewells and not adding to the burden of Metrowater will join the ranks of those queuing up for expensive water brought in by trucks and railroad.

One hopes that Metrowater ensures that the expensive water brought from Jolarpet is exclusively dedicated to serving people who depend on tanker lorries. Piped water is not metered. It is supplied at a flat rate of Rs 50/month, and people who have access to piped water and overhead or underground storage have less incentive to conserve it. In contrast, those who stand in queues to get five pots of water tend to use it more carefully.

Water is precious, regardless of the price tag we put on it. That said, it is unpardonable how Metrowater continues to ply tankers that spill and leak water onto the streets. The manner in which water is filled in Metrowater filling stations also leaves a lot of room for improvement. If milk and petrol can be filled and transported without spillage, why can’t water? Attention must be given to leak-proofing the transport and transfer of water in and from wagons to the water pipeline.

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

The railroad wagons that are being used for water transport need to be specially designed and treated to carry drinking water. Paints containing heavy metals such as lead should not be used, as this can leach into the water and poison it. Lead, a common ingredient in paints, can cause severe mental and physical impairment, and children are particularly at risk.

The cargo (water) is a highly sensitive resource that will be used by infants, children, sick patients. All of us and they are trusting that this will not be contaminated. Railway wagons used for carrying chemicals, petroleum products etc should not be used for transporting drinking water.

The quick-fixes to overcome the water crisis are only worsening our plight. But that would be justified if Metrowater and other agencies of the state start engaging with citizens that are insisting on a better land- and water-use policy.

Stop expanding the city. Stop covering more and more of open spaces with concrete or asphalt in the name of development or easing traffic. Dealing with traffic and solving that problem is far simpler and less painful than living without water.

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