The water crisis in Chennai has been dominating the headlines for days now. At first, people elsewhere in India dismissed it as an unfortunate and temporary water shortage.
Nothing unusual in southern India which is fed by seasonal rivers that dry up in summers. But pictures of distraught children, shrunken water bodies, desiccated land, and long meandering queues of women waiting to fill their pitchers with water from a source made India realize that this is no ordinary crisis.
The municipality has been forced to put a cap on the amount of water it can make available to the people of Chennai in order to preserve the precious little that is left.
Chennai is unofficially India’s first city that has almost run out of water. It had happened in South Africa before and now severe water shortage is catching up in India too.
Doomsayers are convinced that the people of a country are responsible for the arrival of Day Zero when the water supply ends from most of the taps. And, the condition of parched Chennai simply presages it.
Chennai is heavily reliant on water tankers and trains that lug millions of gallons of drinking water to this now arid city. Private sellers have decided to cash in on the drought and go in for the kill.
The price of bottled water has shot up four times. And packaged drinking water is beyond the common people’s affordability. Malls have closed washrooms, employees have been requested to work from home and many restaurants are closing shops temporarily, and this might just prompt an economic downturn.
But, what caused this crippling water emergency in the first place? A couple of decades ago, the capital city of Tamil Nadu was one of the few water surplus cities in India.
From there it has gone on to become India’s first metropolitan to be ravaged by a water crisis of extreme proportions. There are four lakes and three rivers connected by the Buckingham Canal that supply Chennai with water.
The lakes are bone dry; barely containing 1% of their volume last year. The rivers can be recognized merely by their dried-up beds. The Buckingham Canal too is dry. While politicians are blaming the whimsical nature, there is more to it than meets the eye.
Yes, this year’s summer has been blisteringly hot and has sapped moisture from the soil. Last year’s monsoon was anything but sufficient.
It left a 54% deficit. And, the final nail in the coffin was this year’s sluggish monsoon that took an eternity to arrive in Tamil Nadu. And as the weathermen have explained, the world is going through a phase of sparse monsoon seasons that is a part of the natural cycle.
Be it as it may, there are plenty of reasons that will implicate humans in Chennai’s water crisis. The National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) believes that it is not just Chennai but 21 other Indian cities will face a similar fate very soon.
Around 600 million people, a sizeable chunk of India’s population, live under the threat of water crisis. And, that is why we should all heed what is happening in Chennai and adopt measures to avert a water calamity of epic proportions.
Let’s explore the reasons why Chennai’s drought-like conditions could have been avoided!
Chennai rests on a flood plain. That is why it has always been prone to horrific floods during heavy monsoons.
Even a few years ago, Chennai was nearly drowned out by a vicious flood. So, officials in Chennai ordered to have the city paved up. When the ground is paved, rainwater cannot penetrate the lower levels of the land and replenish the groundwater reserves.
And that is why the levels of groundwater began to sink further and further at an alarming pace. Moreover, in the last 10 years, 33% of the city’s wetlands have been lost, either to the mad dash paving project or the large-scale urban settlement construction work. Wetlands such as Madhavaram, Pallikaranai Marsh, Kattupalli Island, Pulicat Lake, Manali Jheels and Adyar Estuary Creek have visibly shrunken.
Simultaneously the paving and construction projects also encroached upon agricultural land that is so vital in maintaining groundwater levels. Nearly 24% of the land reserved for growing crops has been lost.
The Centre for Climate Research also blames the rampant construction of roads and highways. The expansion of the concrete jungle has further disturbed the precarious natural balance.
Then we come to bitter political wars based on water. Notably, water has always been a flashpoint of politics between states and countries that share rivers. The Cauvery river flows through not just Tamil Nadu but its neighbour Karnataka as well.
The Tamil government complains that the water that should naturally have flown into their state is unfairly and illegally held up by Karnataka.
And, they are yet to reach a settlement with their neighbouring government on this issue. Politicians let such bickering drag on to serve their interests.
To compound matters, the government hasn’t been upbeat on water conservation. Water shortage starts as early as December in this city.
Yet significant amounts of water remain in the water sources including lakes, reservoirs and rivers. But gross mismanagement of water leads to water paucity almost every year.
And, yet the government is loathed to implement measures to make the most of the water that is at their disposal which studies say would be sufficient to make the city scrape through before monsoon arrives.
Moreover, the officials twiddled their thumbs as the quality of water deteriorated and water hyacinths grew unrestrained and reduced water area through evapotranspiration. And, all this made much of Chennai’s water unfit for human consumption.
Further, the lumbering bureaucracy and grey areas around jurisdiction only made matters worse. Chennai’s water bodies do not come under the purview of any particular ministry or agency.
Lake rejuvenation, river clean-up, pollution control, and water encroachment are handled by different agencies which never seem to see eye to eye for long enough to come together and do their bit solving Chennai’s water crisis.
Now that an unprecedented drought has hit, the government officials have finally shrugged off their apathy and are considering options like water harvesting, inter-basin water transfer and constructing desalination plants.
But, none of it will be fruitful until the jurisdiction imbroglio is sorted. And, the Tamil Nadu government has been clutching at straws and turning to quick fixes that are worsening the crisis.
Chennai has made arrangements for millions of litres of water being brought to the city from Vellore through special water trains. The initiative will cost the government nearly INR 8.7 lakh. Not to mention the cost of transporting the water to all parts of Chennai.
This responsibility has been undertaken by the valiant Metropolitan Water Supply but this move is seriously denting the government coffers.
The cost of water boils down to INR 3170/kilolitre. This is an astronomical price to pay for water. But, if the municipality had the foresight to sink more wells and bore wells, it would have brought down the price to at least INR 3/kilolitre, that is 1000 times less than the price that has to be paid when water is being transported.
Similarly, if water management hadn’t been so shoddy and it had been fetched from the Redhills, water price could have come down to INR 4/kilolitre.
Whereas Veeranam water might be costlier but at INR 22/kilolitre, it is not even a patch on the price of water being transported from Vellore. More desalination plants would’ve meant a steady supply of water at around INR 45/kilolitre, again, much cheaper than what Chennai has to pay now.
But fingers should not be pointed at the Metropolitan Water Supply because this is a last-ditch attempt to save millions of people.
But, it is the lapses of the other departments such as the Public Works Department, Pollution Control Board, Metropolitan Development Authority, Municipal Corporation and Rivers Restoration Trust that are responsible for the government reeling under the burden of having to secure water supply at exorbitant prices.
What the Metropolitan Water Supply can do in these trying circumstances is bring its considerable weight to bear on the other bodies to foster mutual understanding and co-operation.
Pallavaram Periya and Keezhkattalai lakes have been bisected by a 200-foot radial road. It is just one part of the ambitious INR 35 crore project, which is being bankrolled by the World Bank.
When the project will complete, it will lay waste to 40 acres of precious wetlands. This means, very soon, the regions lying adjacent to the road will witness depleting groundwater. The people here use bore wells now. But, in the near future when the groundwater level would drop, bore wells would lose their purpose. Further, there isn’t much of the Pallavaram lake that is left.
A huge portion of it is disappearing because of encroachment, and to the south, it is smothered by waste matter dumped here from the Pallavaram municipality.
Moreover, a hasty move like bringing water all the way from Vellore doesn’t solve another root issue. Distribution of water evenly amongst the people across the city is a challenge that remains unaddressed.
The municipality does not meter water that is supplied through pipelines. It reaches everyone at a rate of INR 50/month. But unfortunately, there are some people who do not have access to it.
They are the ones who have to depend solely on water tanks for their daily supply of water. So efforts must be made to ensure that the water being brought in through tanks are distributed amongst those who have been the hardest hit by the water crisis; the ones who are not connected by the water pipes.
And more importantly, awareness has to be raised amongst people who usually get a steady supply of water through not just pipes but also overhead or underground water reservoirs, to not waste this precious resource. Since throughout the year, water paucity affects them less than the less fortunate, they have fewer incentives in saving water.
Yet another reason, why the crisis is being exacerbated is the insensitive wastage of water through spillage. Water tanks trundling down the roads spilling vast quantities of water is a common sight in not just Chennai but all over India. It is enough to make anyone cringe.
But when it happens in a city that is essentially water-less, it becomes unpardonable. And, there is no reason why so much water should go down the drain. Milk and liquid fuel are transported safely without a single drop being spilled.
Yet water slops over the open hatch and pours out of the pipes attached to the tank. It can be chalked up to the impassive and dispassionate attitude of the men responsible for driving water tanks. So, it is now upon the municipality to sensitize these folk. Otherwise, all the efforts that are being put into bringing water from far away will go to waste.
There is yet another drawback to this hurried solution. The trains that transport water have special wagons designed for this purpose. But, the walls inside are coated in paint, which contains heavy metals such as lead.
Notably, lead is a poisonous metal and can be cataclysmic to the human body. A special kind of paint has to be used to coat containers that hold water or food items.
But, we don’t know if the government has ensured that only the safe and healthy kind of paint has been used. If not, this could expose people who drink the water brought to Chennai in these wagons to a host of illnesses such as severe allergies, depleted IQ, mood swings, lethargy or hyperactivity, and nausea.
In extreme cases, lead poisoning could happen followed by nervous disorders and encephalitis. Infants, children, elderly and the people who have already been diagnosed with an illness are especially vulnerable. Similarly, water should not be poured into wagons that usually transport chemicals because trace elements of the chemicals linger inside and would contaminate the water.
This quick-fix was in response to desperate times. But, it was not well planned out. It may be a temporary solution but unless the government adopts the right measures, this crisis will keep revisiting every year.