With tank and lake beds parched and cracking, Chennai residents are reeling under an acute water crisis that has hit the city’s IT parks, schools, five-star hotels and high rises. Many corporations in India’s sixth largest city have scaled down operations to conserve water, asking employees to work from home, where too taps have run dry. As the mercury continues to soar, there seems to be no respite for Chennai, unless the government steps up.
The Chennai Metro Water has cut piped water supply by 40%, which leaves a deficit demand of 525 million litres. This has compelled citizens to shell out a fortune and acquire water from private vendors at double the normal amount.
Metro Water tankers have become a common sight in residential neighbourhoods. However, with demand outweighing supply, the waiting period has increased to 25 days, which in turn has pushed up their prices manifold. While a Metro Water tanker costs Rs 700-Rs 800 for 9,000 litres, private tankers are making a whopping Rs 4,000-Rs 5,000.
While the AIADMK government denies that there is a water crisis in Chennai and promised uninterrupted water supply till November, the opposition led by DMK, staged protests in front of the Coimbatore City Corporation Office on Tuesday, June 19, to demand a solution for the water crisis.
According to Indian Express, the Tamil Nadu Minister for Fisheries urged against politicising the crisis, saying, “Water management is a crucial subject. We are doing maximum what we can do. Even after deficit rain, we are trying hard to provide water. Over 400 water tanks are distributing water in the city.”
Scenes from Madras
With not enough water to drink, activities like washing clothes and bathing have also come to a near standstill, leading to fear of unhygienic condition and diseases. Nerve areas like Triplicane and Royapettah have shut down.
Around community wells, there are long queues and lottery systems in place, to decide who gets to draw water from the depths. Many guesthouses and nearly 100 hostels have temporarily shut down; restaurants are taking lunch meals off the menu for want of water, and switching to paper plates to save water. Schools have extended their summer holidays in light of the heatwave or cut their working hours, unable to provide water.
Besides the IT and hospitality industry, the hardest hit sector has been healthcare, putting hundreds of lives in jeopardy. Pictures of clogged public toilets at Egmore Children’s Hospital went viral. This is an alarming indication of the magnitude of the crisis. Patient carers and visitors have been asked by many hospitals to carry their own water; many water points were promptly closed as the situation grew direr.
What’s behind this?
The Coromandel Coast relies heavily on the northeast monsoon winds for its water needs. But this year, rain is not expected before October-November. The delay of the NE monsoons this year, which was predicted to result in a 54% deficit in rainfall, required concerted efforts by authorities and citizens to mitigate this crisis.
However, the government’s lax attitude and mismanagement of precious water resources, coupled with the privatisation of groundwater aquifers, and the collective failure to prevent 2015’s floodwater runoff into the sea, have led to the worst spell of water scarcity Chennai has ever seen. Encroachment of water bodies further proves this is a man-made catastrophe.
Five of the district’s main reservoirs: Puzhal, Sholavaram, Kaliveli, Pulicat, and Maduranthakam—all located within a 60-km radius of Chennai—form the primary sources of water for Chennai residents. But they have either dried up or their levels have sharply plummeted due to the heatwave and for lack of replenishment through rain.
Even Chembarambakkam Lake, TN’s largest freshwater reservoir is reportedly almost dry, intensifying the crisis not only in urban but rural areas as well.
Court slams government
Hearing a PIL on effluents flowing into a canal in Vellore, Madras High Court lambasted the Tamil Nadu government Tuesday for allowing this periodic problem to grow and not taking adequate preparatory measures to address it, especially in the wake of late monsoons.
Water crisis didn’t build in a day, an HC bench comprising Justices S. Manikumar and Subramonium Prasad said, directing the E Palaniswami government to take immediate measures to award relief.
The state claimed the media has exaggerated the issue and blown it out of proportion. CM Palaniswami on Tuesday called it an attempt to propagate an illusion of water scarcity based on “some stray incidents”, adding that the government had spent Rs 212 crore in digging deep borewells.
The government submitted a report to the court, on the steps being taken to curb the crisis, as well as new desalination projects planned to supply more water to Chennai, but there was no effort to fast-track them. Officials are currently identifying and extracting water from the groundwater table which remains abysmally low due to a prolonged lack of rain and poor adoption of replenishment techniques.
The court responded by saying that several water bodies in the state have been destroyed due to encroachment. It also directed the Public Works Department (PWD) to submit a state-wide comprehensive report on the number of reservoirs in the state, steps taken for desilting, amount sanctioned, and status of those works.
Urban vs rural crisis
In addition, the state has ordered the release of water from Mettur Dam to replenish Veeranam Lake in Cuddalore district, to supply drinking water to Chennai residents. But this diverts water from other water networks especially peripheral settlements and rural areas, whose needs and crises are being overlooked because of the way the metropolitan crisis is being foregrounded.
According to News18, the total water demand in the city is 950 million litres per day (MLD), whereas the supply is 750 MLD, including 200 MLD from private tankers. The report cites officials sources saying this leaves a dangerous deficit of 200 MLD, although activists say the deficit is even higher.
The water crisis in the country is not limited to just farmers and rural populations in Gujarat and Maharashtra anymore. According to Down to Earth, 2019 was the second-driest pre-monsoon season in the last 65 years. Besides Tamil Nadu, protracted regions in the south and the west have been hit hard by drought, scanty rain and a depleting groundwater table.
With Krishna river water from Kandaleru dam in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh not realised in its full capacity this year, the water crisis is spreading swiftly to urban settlements and establishments. Many regions of Karnataka including Bengaluru are experiencing acute shortage of drinking and potable water as well; the Congress-JDS government has assured this will be adequately addressed.
While affluent urban residents can afford to rely on private tankers, the option isn’t viable or available to their marginalised and rural counterparts. Water rights activists are urging the government to reclaim and regulate groundwater aquifers as a common public resource to prevent private vendors from profiting off the water deficit.
With more river and groundwater being diverted to plug urban deficits, moreover, the crisis in rural areas stands to worsen and leave farmers worse off than before. Large-scale migration to cities, from dried up villages of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar, and UP, has further driven the precarity of the situation home.
Earlier this month, the UN credited the Modi government’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) for creating awareness regarding sanitation. But in focusing on open sanitation, it ignores other threats to soil and salient aspects of groundwater pollution, for example, rapid urbanisation and gentrification that leads to contamination of our rivers and ultimately the drinking water table.
The yet-to-be formalised ‘Nal se Jal’ scheme, set to replace SBM, aims to provide piped drinking water to every rural home by 2024 but given the acute shortage of water, questions may well be raised about its feasibility.
Running out of time and water
According to a NITI Aayog report published in June 2018, more than 600 million people in India face high to extreme water crisis, placing the country 120th out of 122 countries in the water quality index.
Another NITI Aayog report stated that 21 Indian cities, including Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bengaluru, will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people.
Studies showing that 84% of rural homes have no access to piped water, while more than 70% of the country’s water is contaminated, paints a dire picture that is abetted by droughts and toxic rivers flowing in several states. Water riots have already broken out in the largely agrarian district of Bundelkhand in UP, which happens to be undergoing the fourth successive drought in the last five years.
If residents in the heart of a metropolitan city like Chennai and India’s Silicon Valley Bengaluru are in panic mode, does rural India dare hope?
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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