Seven reasons why Chennai should have seen this water crisis coming

Severe water shortage has brought Chennai almost to a standstill today, but the writing on the wall has been clear for quite some time now. Here are seven tell-tale signs the state should have taken note of and acted upon.

Long queues of women and men waiting for their turn at the tanker; schools forced to shut down due to water shortage; companies asking employees to work from home and even patients in hospitals bearing the brunt of water  shortage — these are not scenes from any dystopian novel or movie. This is the reality Chennai is living today. The situation gets worse by the day as the city finds itself in the grip of another spell of widespread and acute water shortage.

The scarcity of water has seen the city’s main reservoirs run dry. Borewells are depleted and the groundwater levels have fallen sharply. Tankers have become the primary source of water for the population. The dire state has been attributed to the failure of the northeast monsoon on which the city is heavily reliant.

1. Almost 2400 acres of water bodies disappeared by 2016

For a city that does not have a perennial water source, Chennai has lost water bodies large and small that add up to ten times the size of the Velachery Lake over the last four decades!

The rampant and unchecked urbanisation has led to shrinking lakes and wetlands over time. The most damning indictment of such neglect came in the form of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report tabled in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in the aftermath of the floods. The report highlighted the role of the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) in giving permissions for construction without adhering to land use planning regulations. This has resulted in the area under water bodies shrinking by 2389 acres between 1979 and 2016. That  illegal construction was allowed to encroach upon much-needed water sources and close to water bodies, having a devastating impact on urban ecology.

The report highlighted the shrinking Mogappair Lake, Ambattur Tank and Pallikaranai Marsh among other water bodies.

2.Only 5 out of 210 water bodies restored

The restoration and proper maintenance of reservoirs and lakes and tanks in the city  has been in the picture for the past two decades. There have been poor efforts to desilt and restore the water bodies.

As for the restoration of water bodies, in its latest submission to the Madras High Court on the water scarcity, Chief Engineer of the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board submitted that only five water bodies of the 210 in the city have been restored. This, despite a yearly increase in funding allocated to various water management schemes such as the Kudimaramathu scheme, a participatory water management scheme, which was launched in 2017, with the latest allocation of Rs 500 crores. The restoration efforts have also been ad-hoc, with  communities in many areas taking up restoration on their own with help from NGOs.

3. Over 50% structures non-compliant with rainwater harvesting

With high dependence on monsoons, rainwater harvesting is crucial. The much touted rainwater harvesting scheme that was launched as an ordinance in the state in 2003 has suffered from poor planning and enforcement.

A survey by the Rain Center in 2015 found 52% of the structures surveyed did not have rainwater harvesting structures. Another survey commissioned by the CMDA and conducted by the Akash Ganga Trust found 27% non-compliance. Even the structures that had RWH system mainly collected run-offs from rooftops and did not collect water falling over open space.

4. 20% decrease in reservoir capacity due to poor maintenance

The failure to periodically desilt the four main reservoirs – Poondi, Red Hills, Cholavaram and Chembarambakkam – has resulted in a 20% decrease in their storage capacity. The last of the reservoirs created for water supply in Chennai was Poondi in 1944. Only two out of the four reservoirs have been desilted in the last decade.

The long overdue fifth reservoir at Thervoy Kandigai was commissioned in 2013 but the delay in land acquisition has meant that the reservoir will not be operational until later this year.

5. No action on 3 heavily polluted rivers

The rampant pollution of the three rivers that run across the city has been a problem that has not found a viable solution to date. The CAG report too highlights this failure on the part of the state. Crores have been allocated for the cleaning up of the rivers over the years. The setting up of the Chennai River Restoration Trust (CRRT) was to ensure the revival of the Cooum river under the Integrated Cooum River Restoration Plan. This is the latest of the city’s decades long effort to clean up the Cooum. The Kosasthaliyar river has suffered industrial pollution over the years. The Adyar too suffers from a clogging of garbage

The National Green Tribunal took cognisance of the issue and imposed a Rs 100 crore fine on the state for its inaction on the pollution of the rivers.

6. At least 3 different agencies oversee Chennai’s water bodies

While the Chennai Mega City Development Mission, Sustainable Water Security Mission and the Smart City Mission all operate parallely with  components focused on water, the nodal agencies are different. The control and management of water resources see the involvement of the state government, the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board, the Corporation of Chennai along with a slew of other state agencies.

For example, even within the city, lakes are under the control of the Public Works Department, ponds are administered by the Corporation of Chennai and the CMWSSB takes care of some bodies that provide potable water. There is a pressing need for a common vision to guide the city’s water policy.

7. 13-year delay in Master Plan notification, 25-year delay in revision of State Water Policy

The 2017 CAG report had pulled up the Government of Tamil Nadu for the 13-year delay in the notification of the Second Master Plan 2011, a loophole that the CMDA used to permit construction converting agricultural land and wetlands based on the proposed Second Master Plan. The unplanned development lacked necessary infrastructure to mitigate population pressure on water resources.

While Tamil Nadu was an early adopter of a State Water Policy in 1994 in line with the National Water Policy, there has been no revision of the state policy since as stated by the CAG report. The draft policy that was tabled in 2014 is yet to be notified.

What can citizens do?

On their part, citizens must embrace rainwater harvesting, grey water recycling and water conservation methods to build resilience. Citizens must understand and push for better water governance. Sustainable master plans, empowered local governments and vigilant watchdogs bodies are critical to ensuring Chennai’s water security.

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