While Chennai vies for the ‘smart city’ title, it continues to rely on the water supply and distribution infrastructure that was designed by the British more than a century ago. The history of city’s water supply dates back to early 18th Century when water was drawn out of wells through the Picota system and transported to Fort St George by bullock cart.
The Picota system uses a wooden beam placed on a vertical pillar fixed near a well (like a seesaw). A bucket is tied to one end with a long rope, and the other end is balanced with a heavy stone, explained an official.
The Seven Wells scheme (not seven, but 10 wells were used) propounded by Captain Baker in 1722 used this technology to draw water from the wells through iron pipes and transfer it to Whites Town or George Town. As the population grew, it was Collector Ellis who ordered the construction of 27 wells in 1818. The city faced a drought-like situation as such wells in Periya Palayatha Amman Kovil were used to provide water to Chennai. An inscription in the temple stands testimony to this.
But the real credit goes to engineer James Frazer, who in 1872 identified Korataliar River, originating from the Nagari Hills, about 165km North-West of Madras, as a potential water source. To tap water from the Korataliar River, masonry weir 6 feet high was built across the river at Tamaraipakkam, about 27km from the city. From this weir, water is diverted to Cholavaram lake by means of an Upper Supply Channel.
From the Cholavaram Lake, water was diverted to Red Hills Lake by means of a Lower Supply Channel about 4km long. Fraser’s proposal confirmed that the Red Hills Lake would remain as the terminal storage point of water drawn from the Korataliar River. From this lake, water is brought to Kilpauk Shaft by a 10km long earthen supply channel.
From the Kilpauk Shaft, water was distributed to the city though cast iron mains. Initially water was supplied to George Town, where the Britishers lived and the ‘black town’ or Mylapore, where Chennaites working for the Britishers lived. But then the 10 km open canal was polluted by people who lived on the banks, resulting in waterborne diseases.
In 1872, Chennai was hit by a hurricane. The Red Hills Lake bore the brunt of it and the bunds were damaged. Later, a tower was constructed by sanitary engineer James and was named James Tower. The tower was used when the pioneer of Chennai’s water supply, James Madley, arrived in 1914. Officials says that it was Madley who designed the City’s water distribution Scheme in 1911 and thus was designed the Kilpauk Water Treatment Plant. He is also the brain behind the drainage network of the city.