A recent report from the Central Groundwater Board has found that the groundwater levels in the districts of Chennai, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram have declined by a staggering 85 per cent in the past decade. Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram are districts adjacent to Chennai. Officials attribute this decline in the groundwater levels to over pumping of water, erratic rain and urbanisation. While there is little control officialdom could exert over rainfall, there is little effort that officialdom has taken to control the factors it can control—over pumping of water and urbanisation.
There has been unchecked, barely planned development in Chennai over the past few decades that has spilled over into the adjacent Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts. Chennai always had a water problem. However, rather than finding sustainable solutions to it, the city’s managers have ensured that the problem spreads and engulfs nearby areas it has grown into. With more people comes a greater demand for water and there is a thriving business for water pumped, often illegally, from nearby districts and sold to huge apartment complexes that were allowed to come up despite the city lacking the means to meet the requirements. Urbanisation has also ensured that with increasing concretisation, rain, when it does fall, is wasted as run-off. The one solution that the state government has long championed is the setting up of rainwater harvesting systems. However, with little oversight and enforcement, these systems are not as ubiquitous or as well maintained as they should be.
Chennai’s problems are hardly unique. The story repeats in every city in this country. With the Northeast monsoon having failed the city, water is now being brought from the Mettur Dam via the Veeranam canal, transported half-way across the state to meet the capital’s needs. The city’s administrators and administrators of every Indian city need to ask themselves how long this can go on. Without meaningful solutions and the political will to act the water is bound to run out. Concrete won’t quench the city’s thirst.