26/06/2019 3:19 PM IST | Updated 26/06/2019 3:19 PM IST

From Floods To Drought, Chennai’s Water Crisis Was A Long Time Coming

By the time the world woke up to this crisis, here in Chennai, we were already paying a heavy price. Literally.

P. Ravikumar / Reuters

Nearly four years ago, as Chennai was hit by horrific flooding that drowned many parts of the city. My family was among those who suffered heavy losses. The toll suffered by the city and its people led me to begin researching the reasons for the disaster. Three-and-a-half years later, as my book, Rivers Remember, readies for launch, Chennai is going through a water shortage that has left people paying exorbitant amounts for tankers and forcing institutions to temporarily shut down. 

The irony is particularly cruel.

There are similarities, of course. Just like in 2015, there wasn’t enough media attention or awareness of the scale of the crisis (barring some local news outlets, which doggedly reported on the issue). We knew Chennai was staring at a drought after the low rainfall of 2017 and the failed monsoons last year. But there was no spotlight on the problem, no attempt by authorities to guide citizens on how to deal with this crisis that was creeping up on us. 

By the time the world woke up to this crisis, here in Chennai, we were already paying a heavy price. Literally. 

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No option but tankers

There were murmurs as the summer began that our reservoirs would run out of water. In my own apartment building, for instance, the borewell yielded no water for weeks and the ‘corporation’ water that the city supplies, which we depend on for all our needs, was arriving only once in 15 days, and that too for five minutes. 

For the first time since we moved into our house in the commercial hub of T Nagar six years ago, we have had to regularly buy water. The Metro Water (Chennai’s official water supplier) tankers, which supply 9,000 litres of water for Rs 700, have a long waiting period. More than two weeks after we booked one, the status on the official website shows ‘pending’. Like hundreds of people across class lines, we are depending on private water suppliers. The first time we turned to them, last month, we bought 9,000 litres of water for Rs 2,600; the second time, the amount went up to Rs 3,200; and most recently, to Rs 4,600. In poorer neighbourhoods, water is being sold at sky-high rates per kodam (pot), and there is much jostling and fighting for water. Those who are physically fit have a better chance of getting water, because they can fight others to get ahead of the queue. 

Water wars are also gendered. It is mostly women who are in charge of bringing home water. The sight of women and young girls standing next to hand pumps or with plastic pots waiting for water tankers is a common sight in many parts of Chennai across the year. They are the ones bearing the brunt of long queues for water in the harsh Chennai summer.

Political vacuum

In December 2015, the Chembarambakkam reservoir was so full from that year’s monsoons that there was a threat of it giving way. The entire city would have drowned, authorities said, opening the sluice gates. More than 1,00,000 cusecs of water ran through the Adyar river, which then sank significant parts of the city. Since then, nearly nothing has been done in terms of reservoir management. All four reservoirs on which Chennai depends for its water supply are now bone dry because it hadn’t rained for 200 days. It is now safe to assume that we are neither flood, nor drought safe.

Water problems in Chennai aren’t new. Many of us grew up aware of the issue. Some parts of the city have not had underground water for over a decade. My parents’ home, which was submerged in the 2015 floods, has relied on private water tankers for ten years—the borewell yields nothing despite the much-touted rainwater harvesting that began in the city in earnest over 15 years ago. 

However, what seems to be different, and more frightening, this time is the power vacuum of sorts in the state. After the death of J Jayalalithaa in 2016, Tamil Nadu has seen a policy and developmental paralysis as the ruling AIADMK grapples with a leadership crisis. Even though there is no denying that previous regimes, headed both the AIADMK and DMK, did little to protect our wetlands and floodplains in the last few decades. Now, the Opposition has accused the current government of pledging the state’s interests to the Central government for its own political survival. The current political dispensation lacks the heft to negotiate the Centre, as well as neighbouring states with whom Tamil Nadu is embroiled in several fights over water sharing. 

The government’s ham-handed approach at home hasn’t helped matters either. As late as 17 June, SP Velumani, the state minister for municipal administration, claimed that the drought was a rumour and that there was no water crisis in the city. The state government also inexplicably turned down Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s offer of 20 lakh litres of water, ostensibly holding out for more. Whispers among political observers see a BJP hand in this denial. CM Edappadi K Palaniswami even told the media to ‘stop exaggerating’ while reporting the water crisis. 

While our politicians endlessly politicise water issues, be it Cauvery or Mullaperiyar, for their own gains, people haven’t pressed for drinking and irrigation water to be kept out of political games. Nor have voting patterns shown that there is a price to pay for not addressing these basic issues.  

P. Ravikumar / Reuters

Chennai is losing water bodies

Chennai’s four main sources of water are the Puzhal, Chembarambakkam, Sholavaram and Poondi in the outskirts of the city. The city has lost many lakes, over which construction has been allowed in the last 100 years, from Mambalam to Nungambakkam. Lack of proper desilting and sewage flowing through water bodies including canals and lakes is a major concern..

In the short term, the government needs to negotiate with neighbouring states on more practical ways of sharing water—how does it even make political sense to turn down water from a friendly neighbouring state at this point? In the long term, the government has no choice but to focus on better reservoir management, rehaul infrastructure, work to conserve lakes and flood plains instead of treating them as prime real estate locations and strictly implement rain-water harvesting. The Pallikaranai marsh, for instance, has shrunk vastly in the last decade thanks to increasing demand for housing and commercial space and the government’s nod to several large scale developments. Thriving IT and automobile industries in Chennai has also put strain on the city’s resources. While it’s great that Chennai is home to people from different parts of the world and that we can make world-class products right here, our urban planning is hardly world class. It is at best ad-hoc, and at worst detrimental to its own inhabitants. The story is the same on the Old Mahabalipuram Road (the IT corridor) and Grand Southern Trunk Road (auto corridor) and surrounding areas. Less said about the Ennore backwaters the better, because the state is actively involved in destroying acres of precious backwaters and a delicate ecosystem.

Once again, Chennai has become a warning tale as climate change experts and environmentalists warn other cities across the world to learn from us. For those of us in Chennai, this is taking a toll emotionally as well as financially. Will our beloved home be unlivable very soon?

Krupa Ge is a writer and editor from Chennai. Her book ’Rivers Remember: #ChennaiRains and the Shocking Truth of a Manmade Flood’ is published by Context.

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