CHENNAI: With five long months to go before the monsoon sets in, Chennai is reeling under its worst water crisis. In such a situation, should the city consider shutting down luxury facilities that continue to consume large quantities of water? This is an important decision for the state government to consider given its existing sources of water are being fast depleted. Experts and activists believed that if the government wants hospitals, schools and offices to continue functioning and apartment complexes not to struggle more till the monsoon sets in, it may be high time the State formulated a plan to limit use of water in ‘luxury’ facilities such as amusement parks and swimming pools. The decision will come at an economic cost, but may have become a moral imperative at this point, said activists.
Water rides amid scarcity?
Amusement parks, swimming pools (standalone and at star hotels) have continued to function by buying large quantities of water from private tankers or drawing water from borewells even as the city’s residents have had to wait for at least three weeks to get a minimum of 12,000 litres from private tankers given most borewells have gone dry.
The water scarcity, which started in March, has worsened in the past month forcing eateries, schools and IT parks to shut or limit working hours as even private tankers were unable to source water, their attempts to pump water from agricultural fields meeting with strong opposition from villagers. Some hospitals have even stopped delivering babies due to acute water shortage. Despite the crisis, people who recently visited amusement parks in and around the city said there were no signs of water conservation and all water rides remained open. “Though some land rides were closed, all water rides were open. The women’s toilet was almost flooded as most taps were not closed and some were leaking,” said Sharon, who visited an amusement park near Tambaram.
A member from the management team of a popular amusement park in the city said that although it was a challenge to source water nowadays shutting down wasn’t an option as the families of over 200 workers were dependent on them. “We used to get water from our own lake, but that is completely dry now. Hence we are dependent on water from tankers and groundwater. We need about 35,000 litres a day,” he said.
Members of the private water tanker association said most such amusement parks source water from their own borewells as they are located in groundwater rich areas. However, most hotels fill their swimming pools with water obtained from tankers. “Hotel owners do not tell us openly that they need water to fill the pools. A hotel that usually orders five loads of water will suddenly ask for seven to eight loads but won’t tell us why. Only if people avoid using these facilities will hotels stop wasting water on them. We strongly condemn such activities which involves wastage of large quanta of water,” said Murugan S, secretary of Tamil Nadu Private water Tanker Lorry Owner Association.
However, even using borewell water to meet the requirements of such facilities can have an adverse impact on groundwater levels in surrounding areas. For instance, the YMCA at Nandanam which draws 50,000 litres using four borewells to fill its swimming pools while borewells in nearby houses do not get water even at 100 ft. Worse, even the Chennai Corporation has kept its pool at the Marina full using water from an open well and borewells. “Though the water is a little salty, we purify it thoroughly so that it is clean enough to use for the pool. We are self-sufficient hence the pool will remain open,” said the person in charge of the pool.
Although water in swimming pools maintained by star hotels are purified and recycled everyday or once in two days, 24,000 litres is needed monthly to compensate for evaporation loss. Express visited a few star hotels in the city and found their pools functioning normally. Malls are another non-essential service with heavy water usage — each uses around 25-30 loads of 24,000 or 36,000 litres everyday. The manager of a popular mall in the city said that they buy 20 loads of 24,000 litres from private tankers everyday, mainly for maintaining the air conditioning system and toilets. “Only during the tanker strike were we closed for a day. But we don’t face such issues now. Tankers come on request. We take water from borewells too,” he added.
‘Difficult but necessary’
“Five-star hotels continue to use huge quantity of water. Meanwhile, many hospitals and housing units suffer heavily. The worst hit are the slums,” said S Janakarajan, an expert in the field of water resource management. Due to irrational crisis management groundwater will be depleted leading to an ecological disaster, he lamented. “In a world dominated by markets and private profit, it’s going to be difficult to regulate water use between essential and luxury uses. But this may be the need of the hour,” he said, adding that money power and political backing will be major hurdles the government would have to overcome to manage water more effectively. “Also the government cannot and will not antagonize big market players,” he said.
The government will also have to weigh any decision to close such non-essential facilities against the impact on the employees of such entities. Activists said that owners of such establishments would have to pay their staff salaries for the period in which the mall or amusement park is closed.
Experts said that the poor were the ultimate victims as the affluent would continue to buy water. Further, as it is up to a company to decide whether or not it will continue paying staff if the facility is temporarily shut, the fate of staff families will be up in the air. “Malls, theatres and amusement parks have thousands of families dependent on them. If they are shut for five months, people will lose their daily earnings. But due to the severity of the water crisis, morally, this is the right decision to take,” said Kripa R, an independent researcher on urban planning.
Another option the government could consider would be rationing of water for such industries, said Jayaram Venkatesan of Arappor Iyakkam. He said that the slums were most affected as only 45 MLD out of 88 MLD distributed in 9,800 trips by Metro Water reaches them. “The government definitely needs to shut down such water-intensive industries. People think that recent rains will make a big difference, but this is not the case. If the city wants to manage its current sources, the government has to shut down such establishments for the greater good,” he added.
Pools used for storing water
Interestingly, swimming pools of a majority of apartment complexes across the city have been shut. Those at OMR have been closed since May and are instead being used to store surplus water from tankers, said residents. “Our pools look like a crime scene. We had used tape around the pool and cordoned it off so that no one will use it. Some apartments treat water from pools at their water treatment plant and supply it to toilets,” said Harsha Koda, coordinator of Federation of OMR Resident Associations.
Coimbatore malls show the way
At a time when experts are calling for shutting down all non-essential services in Chennai to save water, malls in Coimbatore say they are prepared to tackle drought The malls here have rainwater harvesting (RWH) systems in their premises. So, whenever the heavens open up, the malls here save lakhs of litres of rainwater. This helps in recharging the groundwater table, they say There are three major malls in Coimbatore, namely Brookefields, Fun Republic Mall and Prozone Mall.
A Brookefields official said, “We are serious about saving water. Therefore, rainwater is harvested and the same recharges the groundwater as well.” Similarly, Brookefields also has a Sewage Treatment Plant that recycles wastewater. The treated water is used for gardening and in washrooms. The water supplied by the City Corporation is used only for drinking, the official said.