CHENNAI: "I still remember that day in 2015 during the Chennai floods when I was balancing a bag of clothes in one hand and my four-year-old child on the other, as water gushed into our homes. Today, I am getting a taste of the harsh past. The only difference is, there was a lot of water then and there is absolutely no water now,” says Dr S Kalpana, a resident of RA Puram.
Chennai’s taps could soon run dry, owing to the protracted drought and government’s failure to provide an alternative water source. Be it Kalpana, who comes from a family of doctors, or a local from the Valleeswarar Garden slum in RA Puram, everybody is scrambling to find water, which evidently is not bound by the economics of income.
The mercury levels have not even crossed 350 C. But, RA Puram, one of the posh localities of Chennai, is facing the worst water crisis in decades. Since the past month, it has been receiving water only once in three-four days.
“Even in 2017, when the city was facing the worst drought in 140 years, we were provided with water, daily. Since last month, Metro Water is only released twice in a week, and the pressure is so low that it becomes difficult to even fill two buckets,” says P Karuna, a long-time resident of RA Puram.
Arun Dinakaran, a resident of First Main Road in RA Puram said GI (galvanised iron) pipes are laid for water supply. So, when water is not supplied for three-four days, it starts corroding, thereby narrowing the water flow.
With the objective of harvesting rainwater and replenishing the ground water table, the members of RA Puram Residents Association (RAPRA) in July 2018 constructed 13 wells in the locality, each at a cost of Rs 19,000.
“However, from then, there has been no rain and we are buckling up for severe water crisis. Though located in close proximity, Mylapore does not face water problems because of the enormous temple tank that recharges groundwater table. In our area, Buckingham Canal is poorly maintained. Maintenance work must be done to avoid situations like these,” says VR Rangarajan from RAPRA.
Talking about the measures being taken by the residents currently, they said while the ‘rich’ were buying water from tankers, the ‘poor’ have restricted the use of water and pinned their hopes on the government for better water supply.
“One of the issues with the city is that it never has a long-term strategy. Despite having 3,600 water bodies in Kanchipuram, Chennai and Tiruvallur districts, we still run out of water every year. We need good rainwater harvesting and management mechanisms in place. Desalination plants and the infrastructure we have currently are only temporary solutions. If imperative action is not taken, the future will be worse,” says L Subramanian, a water expert.
Waterbodies are aplenty, ironically, the number of departments maintaining them are also many. While Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) looks after ponds in the city, Public Works Department (PWD) controls lakes, Metro Water is in charge of the water bodies that provide drinking water, and the departments also work in co-ordination with several other departments to maintain waterbodies and marshlands. Years have passed by, there is still no single agency in Chennai, which oversees ‘water’ as a whole.
“To desilt lakes that have water, there is separate equipment (which floats on water and can desilt) and this is with the GCC. But, as PWD doesn’t have access to it the NGOs take the efforts. It costs them at least `10 crore to `20 crore to buy the equipment, and this is the reason desilting is done with JCBs when the lakes are dry,” says a member of an NGO working towards water conservation, on condition of anonymity.
Activists rue that the authorities often neglect other lakes and divert all the funds for desilting a handful of them. Subrramani, founder of Sabari Green Foundation, an NGO for rejuvenation of waterbodies said there are nearly 3,000 waterbodies in Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA).
“For the past 20 years, 90 per cent of the waterbodies have not been desilted though the government has been allotting crores. This is being used to rejuvenate only a few lakes. In the last year, almost Rs 200 crore was allotted for Porur lake, nearly Rs 42 crore for Chetpet lake and more than a whopping Rs 800 crore for a reservoir at Thervoy Kandigai,” he says.
When contacted, an official of the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) admitted that the water levels are low and that the water could only be supplied twice or thrice in a week in RA Puram.
Chennai has a rainfall deficit of 54 per cent this year. This means that the city is likely to witness a repeat of the summer of 2017. On any given day, Chennai requires 850 MLD (Million Litres per Day) of water. The CMWSSB presently supplies around 650 MLD from Poondi, Cholavaram, Redhills and Chembarambakkam lakes, desalination plants and agricultural wells.