Chennai will be a water abundant city in five years: Metro Water official

But what about summer 2021? How will Chennai manage? In this exclusive interview, Superintendent Engineer (Central) of the CMWSSB shares their immediate plans as well as steps taken for the long run.

Well, that almost sounds like a page out of a fantasy novel, given the water scenario many of its localities have been facing in recent years. It’s been barely two years that the city was making global headlines for having dried up completely in the wake of a monsoon failure and depleting groundwater reserves. 

Was it this crisis that served as a wake up call for the Tamil Nadu government, pushing it to take steps to augment the city’s water supply and conserve water resources? How is summer 2021 going to be on the water front? What has changed in the past two years? 

We interviewed V G Ramaswami, Superintendent Engineer, Central, Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) to know the water supply board’s plan for the city. 

Summer is here. What efforts have been taken in the past two years to ensure there is no repeat of the 2019 water crisis? What additional storage reservoirs were created for the city’s water supply? 

To augment the city’s water supply, Sikkarayapuram quarries are to be integrated as a permanent source of water. 

Last year, the board inaugurated two Tertiary Treatment Reverse Osmosis (TTRO) plants at Kodungaiyur and Koyambedu. Through these plants, sewage water is treated in multiple stages to produce 90 MLD (Million Litres per day) of water. The treated water is supplied to industries in SIPCOT and Irugattukotai.

V G Ramaswami, Superintendent Engineer, Central, Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

In a first in India, Metro Water Department is setting up two plants at Nesapakkam and Perungudi to treat the sewage water. These plants, with 10 MLD capacity each, will be the ideal solution for ground water recharge in Chennai. Sewage water will be stripped of its smell and toxic pollutants through tertiary treatment with ultra filtration. The treated water will then be let into the shallow wells dug close to water bodies for the recharge of ground water. Through this method, groundwater levels within a radius of 2-3 km from the lakes (based on the soil type of the area) will be recharged. And every neighbourhood in Chennai is blessed with lakes.

The long term goal is to replace the existing method of treatment with the new technology, so that 550 MLD of sewage generated in the city can be treated and used to recharge our water bodies. 

The Board has proposed tertiary treatment with ultra filtration plants of 260MLD across the city. We are awaiting funds to commence the work. 

How is tertiary treatment with ultra filtration different from the existing method of treating sewage in Chennai? 

Under the existing practice, raw sewage goes through secondary treatment. The pollutants are significantly removed but the smell and colour of the water remain the same. Tertiary treatment is a more effective way and is an excellent solution. The cost of these plants is much higher than that of secondary treatment plants. But it is a one-time investment that yields effective results. 

We expect to set up these plants in five years. Once we are able to treat 550MLD of waste water, Chennai will be a water-abundant city even if the monsoon fails for a year or two. 

Read More: Metro Water’s 10 big promises for Chennai citizens in 2020

How is the quality of water obtained after tertiary treatment with ultra filtration? 

 The TDS of the treated water obtained through this technology is 650; this water will be used to recharge groundwater.

But 5 years is a long time, what measures is the Board taking in view of summer 2021? 

The two tertiary treatment plants at Nesapakkam and Perungudi will be completed in less than three months. Apart from the Sikkarayapuram quarries (30 MLD) that I have already mentioned, we will also be sourcing water from the Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh, when the water levels in the city go down. Currently, all our water reservoirs except Veeranam Lake are at 80% capacity.

Let us also not forget that we are providing 90 MLD of water through TTRO plants and thus preventing further exploitation of fresh water sources. 

The Krishna River in Andhra Pradesh. Pic: Subhash Chandra/Wikimedia

Desalination plants which are under construction are also expected to add to the city’s growing water needs. When will the project be completed? 

A 150-MLD desalination plant is being added to the existing 100 MLD plant at Nemmeli; it will be completed in two years. The state government aims to construct a desalination plant at Perur with a capacity of 400 MLD. It is a project funded by the Japan government, currently at the tendering stage. It is difficult to give an accurate deadline at this stage, considering the slowdown due to the pandemic. 

To what extent has the pandemic affected the implementation of such projects? 

We have stalled many projects due to the restriction of movement during the night. As many migrant workers moved back to their hometowns, labour has become a critical problem. Yet, that has not stopped us from carrying out important responsibilities such as supplying water to the containment zones.

With just 2500 employees consisting of engineers, technical staff and others, we are working overtime to treat 551 MLD of sewerage water and procure 830 MLD drinking water. Any failure or pause in these two round-the-clock activities will disrupt water supply distribution and safe disposal of sewage in Chennai.

Will water metering for residential localities be rolled out any time soon? Can the city benefit from water meters? 

Digital water meters installed in the commercial spaces of Chennai have been a hit because they save wastage of water and eventually results in water conservation. The next move is to introduce these meters in the partly commercial spaces. 

In the residential segment, water meters should be uniformly installed across the city. The board will get to it once work on the 400 MLD desalination Perur plant is completed. There has been no resistance from citizens on the idea of water meters. So, it won’t take long for Chennai to follow the model of Hyderabad and Delhi in metering water consumption. 

What can Metro Water do about illegal groundwater tapping for water by private tankers.  How does this affect the groundwater in the city?

As most of these cases are not from Chennai, CMWSSB has no authority to take action.  Groundwater from the agricultural wells of Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram are extracted illegally. The Public Works Department is currently working on a regulation, under which a database is being created. This will help to check the groundwater levels and prohibit anyone from exploiting it when the levels are already low. The regulation should be an effective solution to the problem. 

However, if we are able to recharge water bodies, as proposed, with tertiary treatment of sewage water, that will ensure a constant level of the water table in and around water bodies. Then, it will not be necessary to depend on private water tankers at all.

People gather to fill water from the tankers at ECR. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

Currently, CMWSSB has installed automatic ground water level monitors in all the 200 depot offices, which will indicate any excess extraction of ground water if it happens; necessary action will be initiated if there is a violation.

Read More: Chennai just got a new system to monitor groundwater levels. How will it help?

Does the Metro Water department have data on how much loss occurs in the distribution system? 

According to studies conducted earlier, Non Revenue Water (NRW) was estimated at 35 to 40 percent. In the past few years, most of  the pipelines and service connections were changed. There is no significant loss due to leaks in the distribution system.The current physical loss is estimated at 15%. 

Many townships are extracting groundwater without getting NOC from Metro Water. What’s the procedure to get an NOC? Did the Board come up with a policy for it?

Consumers should obtain permission from the board to set up pumps above 0.5HP motor, both in open wells and borewells. There is an ongoing project initiated by the Board that aims to conduct a survey on these irregularities across the city. Those who violate the norms will have to pay annual licence fees for use of these pumps.

Dewatering — where the water table is lowered to pave way for a construction site — is rampant in the city. Experts say that this results in the diversion of aquifer flow and the depletion of water tables in open wells. Has the Board formulated any policies or restrictions on dewatering?

Again, the automatic ground water level monitors in the 200 depot offices will be able to keep such practices in check and prevent excessive extraction of ground water.

Storm water drains in the city are filled with sewage. It’s an inter-departmental issue that also involves Chennai Corporation. How does the board plan to solve it?

Citizens who are unable to get a sewage connection often let the sewage out into storm water drains. Thereby, we have simplified the procedure of getting a sewage connection through the “Illam Thorum Inaippu” scheme. Economically weaker sections can pay the sewer connection charges in ten instalments (It is a one-time investment of Rs 7500 for a 200 square metre home.)

Recently, we provided 9000 connections for 570 streets within a span of 20 days. We could provide the connections before the Corporation commenced road-laying projects in those streets. That way, we don’t have to dig up the new roads again for sewer connections. 

Why is piped water supply still a far-fetched dream in localities such as OMR? 

Those localities were brought under the Greater Chennai Corporation limits in 2011.  After the completion of the 400 MLD desalination plant, water supply will be provided to this area, and it will be a permanent solution.

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  1. S Ramachandran says:

    Chennai still will be a water starved city. Syntax tank, Metro water tankers, and people with colour colour pots on road and on cycle/tricycle will speak for itself that piped water supply will be a dream for them. Even where there is piped water supply, if it is in the tail end, inadequate pressure will reduce the supply. Uneven terrain is another factor for low supply of water inspite of any number of water bodies we built. In the absence of well, inadequate space for reboring / new boring, metro water pipeline is the lifeline which should be taken into account.

  2. Arjunan Muthukrishnan says:

    I have an order issued in 2009 that Chennai metro water board was to lay pipeline and supply drinking water to JAINS PEBBLE BROOK PROJECT AT OKKIAMPETTAI TURAIPAKKAM. BUT so far no pipeline has been laid and water supplied. Bet 2009 and 2021,both central govt and state govts changed more than once. All budget proposals and approvals have become a laughing stock !!!

  3. krishnamurthy says:

    Uneven water pressure is prevailing in same area because of numerous new connections. To maintain even pressure, tail end line should be given bypass connection from main line.

  4. Pradeep Kumar MS says:

    “The cost of these plants is much higher than that of secondary treatment plants”

    There lies the CRUX.

    WHY NOT RAIN WATER HARVESTING DEARS PLEASE? No big money involved I guess ???

    • S Ramachandran says:

      RWH is there in street houses. They can’t be exploited for the following reasons:
      1) due to paucity of space open wells are closed and bore wells are erected.
      2) The bore wells needs maintenance after some years. It will be an uphill task to remove the existing pipes to lay the new pipes because of new new constructions of modern and vertical in nature.
      3) No open space for installation of new bore well.
      In all the above cases rain water is stored due to RWH without being exploited. All these street houses depends on metro water supply only. In mega city like Chennai piped water supply is the lifeline.

  5. Nagarajan Sridhar says:

    Water abundant in five years! Ok! Ok! in our area there is no water supply at all. We could register a complaint online. First set right your official website for efficient working. Then you can think about supplying water

  6. G Ramkumar says:

    Chennai needs only 30 % of average annual rainfall to meet the its needs.
    By simple practical Rain water harvesting ,Chennai city can meet the demands ,improve ground water table & watet quality.The Roads will become less flooded ,during rains too.Let us make RWH ,as a mass movement. I have implemented simple RWH at many locations in the last 20 years. May peruse my talk as a Panelist in the National Water Mission portal too .

  7. U Seshasayee says:

    In Thiruvananthapuram street, west Mambalam, Chennai 60033; the metro water pipe line is laid in the year 1969 and never changed the lines till now. Which means it’s more than 50 years old, the water pressure is very low and we could not able to use water for the past 15-20 years even though we are promptly paying the tax every year. Several complaints raised on the issue but of no use

  8. K Kesavareddy says:

    We residential apartment of Bay castle on Besant Avenue Road, Adyar, past one month we are not getting metro water, we have also lodged a complaint, metro people came they have done flushing work, even then no water from metro
    We all senior citizens, we can not explain in person account of covid pendamic

    Please take steps to bring metro water to apartment

  9. S Ramachandran says:

    Mega city Chennai is not rain starved region. It is water starved region. I don’t want to blame the management but management needs improvement.

  10. S L S Davey says:

    We in AVM AVENUE 2 nd main road Virugambakkam are facing no supply for the past 5 days. Earlier whenever we complain we were getting water atleast for 2 days. Again no supply. ComplAin, 2days supply. Cycle continued. Latest no supply.

  11. Dr PT Giridharan says:

    Whatever said and done by the Water Board Chief, the fact and data shows that if there is a rain or no rain, the private water tankers have their day and say. In vardha puyal, we let rain into sea. In summer we depend upon krishna, Neyveli, Veeranam etc
    This is the story since 1960. Again sordid to see common folks carrying water on their heads. When are we dreaming to stop telling achievements and milestones and show reality.

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