After Cape Town, will it be Chennai?

A recent report stated that Delhi is likely to face severe water shortage by 2020, and Chennai may well be on its way to a similar crisis. Is it not time we shifted our focus from supply to demand - rainwater conservation, better storage and minimising wastage?

Earlier this year, Cape Town acquired the dubious distinction of becoming the first city in the world to face the prospect of forcibly closing off all taps and get its population to get water from 200 collection points across the city. That catastrophe got pushed back somewhat, but Simla was not so lucky. Last month, piped water was no longer feasible, and people lined up at various places to get their share of this precious commodity. A newspaper report has it that Delhi is likely to go dry in 2020. Can Chennai be far behind?

Or has the city already crossed that tipping point? Reports speak of the rich in Cape Town drilling deep bore wells in a panic reaction to the crisis. Have we not been doing this for years? In some areas of the city, the depth of these bore wells has already reached impossible levels. With this, what little subterranean water exists will soon vanish. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) has been overcoming the problem of reducing water levels by simply identifying wells in the countryside and bringing water from there to the city. The residents there have been protesting but this has been overcome by declaring all these feeder regions as the Chennai Metropolitan Area. When you are part of a city, you cannot deny water to yourself, or at least that appears to be the logic.

In May this year, the Central Government approved a Rs. 3,900 crores desalination plant for the city. To be located at Minjur with a capacity of 400 million litres per day, it has raised the concerns of marine biologists who feels that such a giant facility would wreak havoc on animal and plant life by, and in, the sea. Not that this appears to have worried anyone – the decision makers, the residents of Chennai or the Ministry of Environment that gave its final nod.

The one aspect that is being completely overlooked in all this is the minimising of wastage. Rainwater conservation, which was taken up with such enthusiasm in the 1990s, appears to have lost steam somewhere along the way. On a larger scale, the Government has begun putting disused quarries to good use for storing surplus water. This is a commendable initiative. But why is the citizenry not being told to minimise water wastage?

By this we do not mean those half-hearted appeals that are being periodically sent out. The CMWSSB needs to immediately form a department for water conservation and begin insisting that all large apartment complexes and commercial establishments have water recycling facilities in place that segregate grey water, purify it and send it back into the system for reuse. Presently, there are hardly any buildings in the city that have such facilities in place and even those that claim to have them apparently do not have systems that can cater for what is really being generated as grey water. If such facilities were to be in place, not only will water be conserved, it will also reduce the strain to which the drainage system is at present being subject to. The CMWSSB should then begin targeting individual households, and smaller buildings as well, to take this up. The Corporation also needs to change the ways by which it maintains its parks – the system of using large hoses to water plants needs to be changed to drip feed systems.

In the absence of such conservation processes, Chennai is forever going to be starved of water. And the deficit is only going to become increasingly worse in the years to come.

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