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Why the water tankers' strike brought Chennai to its knees? 

The city’s Metro Water Board was helpless. But why should Chennai be at the mercy of a bunch of private water tankers for its very survival?

Published: 21st October 2018 01:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st October 2018 12:47 PM   |  A+A-

Representational Images. | (File | EPS)

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Last week made it poignantly clear how fragile Chennai actually is. All it took was just a two-day strike by water tanker owners to literally bring the state’s capital city to its knees. Shopping malls and hotels were shut, hospitals struggled and the IT corridor stood perplexed. Many residential apartments had no clue about how to survive another day.

The city’s Metro Water Board was helpless. But why should Chennai be at the mercy of a bunch of private water tankers for its very survival?

The crisis Chennai faced last week was a reminder of a historical — and a continuing — failures of the city’s planners to even draw up a sustainable plan to meet its water needs. When the water tanker owners last week put their foot down, it was made clear enough that even the might of the Madras High Court would not stop over-exploitation of the groundwater in the city’s peripheral areas.

But if one considers how Chennai has met its water needs over the last half-century, it’s a history of usurpation of water from farmers in surrounding villages and now, it appears too risky even to try and stop it. It’s high time we look back at the past mistakes to learn and rethink solutions for the future.

The past

First, a few basics. Chennai has no perennial river anywhere near it. Hence, by default, water was one of the main challenges as the city grew from colonial times. Broadly, the city has met its water requirements in two ways — diversion of fresh water from rivers and lakes in faraway places and extraction of groundwater from within the city limits, and, more importantly, from farming villages around the city.

The very first such project by the British was in 1870 when water from the Kosasthalaiyar River at Tamaraipakkam village in Tiruvallur district was diverted into the Solavaram lake and then into the Red Hills Lake. The colonisers diverted the waters, until then enjoyed by the farmers, to the capital of their province. Ironically, the same has been the approach till today.

The latest in this template is the plan to bring water from the Mettur Dam by laying a 400-kilometer-long pipeline. The city has, for a decade now, already been drawing Cauvery water through the Veeranam Tank in Cuddalore district and now, has plans to directly take waters that could otherwise flow into the delta region for agriculture.

“Do you see any rationality in this? Why should we touch the Cauvery water,” asks Prof S Janakarajan, President, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies.

Experts like him, who have studied water issues in depth, have been saying that such diversion of the waters from faraway places is never going to be a sustainable solution, just as diverting Veeranam water was not. Moreover, the cost that is being borne by the locals in these districts are never visible to those in Chennai.

Cuddalore is perhaps been too far. But one can travel just a few kilometres either north or south of Chennai to witness the damage caused by Chennai’s water suppliers.

The groundwater in vast areas in the vicinity of the city has turned brackish, mainly due to decades of extraction to meet Chennai’s needs.

The Metro Water Board had been for decades drawn groundwater from the Araniar-Kosasthalaiyar river basin in the north. As of now, the water has turned extremely brackish in areas such as Minjur, and the board has simply shifted well fields further inwards, to areas such as Tamaraipakkam. 

The result? A 2015 study by Anna University’s Geology department showed that sea water had intruded up to 14kms in the Araniar-Kosathalaiyar River basin, the vast area littered with water bodies in the North of the city. The farmers in these areas were left in the lurch as productivity slumped due to brackish water.

In the south, it is the private tankers who have been extracting water to supply it in the city for over a decade now. As the unbridled extraction of groundwater has continued, water quality has worsened in areas such as Medavakkam, and slowly operators are moving further south, now reaching villages in the Vandalur to Thiruporur stretch.

It is obvious that the city cannot go on depleting groundwater in more and more areas and that the Madras High Court’s recent order banning groundwater extraction in certain over-exploited areas should be a welcome move. However, it has proved too costly and the water tankers are in no mood to entertain any restrictions on their business.

“We are in an alarming situation now and we have to do something before we reach the place of no return,” says K P Subramanian, former professor in the urban engineering department in Anna University, referring to the crisis the city faced when the water tankers went on strike.

Past failures & way forward

What were our faults and what can be the solutions for the future?

“The problem we are facing today is due to the myopic vision our city managers had. In the 1960s and ’70s, they never anticipated Chennai would grow this big. They should have anticipated this growth and planned for it like most of the American cities had,” says Janakarajan. Since the 1970s, the city’s population has almost tripled now. Further, the growth of the industries too brings with it a huge demand for water.

As the city began to feel the water crisis, what has been done so far can be described, at best, as stop-gap arrangements or short-term solutions such as drawing up of groundwater from new areas or diverting water from other freshwater sources. 

“There has been no scientific assessment of how much is the requirement and what are the available sources. There has been no proper quantification of how much groundwater is being extracted and for what use. What we need is a scientific assessment,” says KM Sadanand, president, Association of Professional Town Planners (APTP).

The Chennai’s Masterplan drafted by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) is a very rare government document that attempts such an analysis. It estimates that the city will have a requirement of 2,248 million litres of water per day (MLD) by 2026 as a best-case scenario and 1,360 MLD in a worst-case scenario.

Currently, the maximum, mostly in surplus months, that the Metrowater supplies is a total of 900 MLD. How did the Masterplan hopes to bridge this huge gap? It simply assumes that Andhra Pradesh will get 930 MLD (12 TMC) of water under the Telugu Ganga project. This can only be termed as extreme optimism, especially when neighbouring states are being highly hesitant to share water. “We have been talking about Krishna water, but it’s not sure whether we will get it since they (Andhra Pradesh) have their own problems,” says A N Sachithanandan, a council member of the Institute of Town Planners.

Janakarajan was more catergorical in stating that the Krishna water can never come to Chennai’s rescue. “So far we have not received more than 1 TMC water in any year,” he says. Not just in its masterplan for the city, the CMDA has been not applying much forethought in granting building permission to newer areas, say urban planners.

“Every builder is made to give an undertaking that he will not rely on the Metrowater to supply water and he will meet his own demands. How is he going to do that?” asks Sadanand. The government agencies are at best shirking from their responsibility of providing water.

Solution at hand

The only sustainable and ecologically sensible solution Chennai can have is to tap rainwater and recycle sewage water.

A few numbers can help understand the potential of rainwater, that is often forgotten. The average rainfall in Chennai, over the past 100 years, is about 125 centimeters and the area of the city’s corporation limits is 462 sq km. “If we tap this, we can get around 150 TMC of water,” says Janakarajan.

“If we tap this entire water, we can very well supply water to another city like Chennai as well,” says Sachithanandan.

Presently, the stormwater drains in the city take the rainwater into either of the two polluted rivers — the Adyar and the Cooum — which in turn drain into the sea.

“Rainwater harvesting is only being done on paper,” charges Subramanian.

In addition to the rainwater harvesting structures in the buildings, restoration of the temple lakes and other lakes in the city, as well as the number of tanks in Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts, can help conserve the rainwater and help in improving the groundwater levels.

Besides, the city generates around 800 million litres of sewage daily and treating it, which is said to be much cheaper than the desalination of seawater, can meet at least half of the water requirements of the city.



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