How will Chennai cope if the water crisis continues?

Chennai has just about survived the scantiest north-east monsoon in 140 years, and the worst-ever water situation in the last 14 years. Akshatha M finds out about the CMWSSB’s contingency plans for the coming season.

It was a cloudy evening in mid-August. It had started drizzling and the dark clouds indicated a heavy spell of rain. It seemed like the South West monsoon would finally show mercy on the water-starved city of Chennai.

As I walked on a narrow street that leads to Whites Road in Royapettah, my path was blocked by a water tanker, and tens of women and hundreds of pots thronging it. There was utter chaos on the street packed with houses on both sides. The women were fighting, yelling at each other and trying their best to grab their chance to collect water.

Someone in the crowd said the Metro Water tanker had come after two days. No wonder people were all rushing to fill as many pots as possible so that they will not remain water deprived for next few days, until the tanker makes its next visit.

The street I am referring to falls under the category of the least privileged in terms of access to water in Chennai. It belongs to the 10 per cent of 3,500 streets in Chennai that do not have piped water supply. The water distribution pattern in the city differs from place to place. This year, with the city reeling under acute water crisis, the water distribution has suffered.

According to Chennai Metro water officials, the Metro Water distribution pattern varies from street to street. There are streets with piped connection that still get water everyday; there are streets that get water once in three days and there are streets that do not get water at all.

“We compensate them by supplying water through tankers – either by filling the small tanks on the streets or by parking tankers at a place from where people can come and collect water in pots,” says a senior official from Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB).

The current scenario

As August draws to a close, Chennai is slowly trying to recuperate from one of the gravest water crises ever faced in history. In terms of rainfall, the situation has been the worst in the last 140 years, due primarily to the poor North East monsoon last year. Water supply has never been worse in the last 14 years.

“Back in 2003, we were forced to completely stop the water supply, but today we are not in such a situation. Metro Water at present supplies 470 mld of water (as against the demand of 1,200 mld) and will continue supplying the same quantity till the North East monsoon arrives and the four reservoirs get enough water. The worst is over,” said the officer, who did not want to be named.

Last year on August 23rd, the water storage in four reservoirs – Poondi, Cholavaram, Redhills and Chembarambakkam was 2,719 mcft and this year it is just 224 mcft, as per the information available on the Chennai Metro Water website. The CMWSSB which had expected a water crisis this season following the failed North East monsoon last year, had scaled down the water supply from four reservoirs right from January. Currently, the reservoirs are fully dry, hence no water is drawn from there.

Here is the current status of water supply in Chennai from various sources:

  • 270 mld from two desalination plants
  • 110 mld from private borewells belonging to farmers in and around Poondi reservoir
  • 50 mld from Metro Water’s well-fields
  • 90 mld from aquifers and borewells in Neyveli
  • 30 mld from abandoned quarries.

With some of these water sources facing one or the other issue everyday, on an average, the CMWSSB is able to supply only 470 mld. Metro Water management believes that the supply will not go down in the next few months, though they will be able to extract water from abandoned quarry pits for the next one month only, going by the current rate of exploitation.

“Thanks to some good rain that we received over the last few weeks. It has helped in groundwater recharge, and therefore we can continue to provide water from borewells,” the official from CMWSSB predicts.

God forbid, but another failed monsoon…?

Having managed and survived the water crisis this season, the worry that looms large is what if the North East monsoon fails this year too. Can the city manage to face yet another water deficit year? Is there a contingency plan in place?

The answer is a clear no. Though the Indian Meteorological Department has predicted a normal monsoon this year, the sorry state of weather prediction in India is a well-known fact. IMD has often been criticised for making inaccurate weather predictions. The CMWSSB official says, “they (IMD) predicted good rains last season too, but look at what happened. Our weather science today is not in a position to predict the rains.”

So what if the North East monsoon fails this year too? To this question, CMWSSB officials do not have a very definite or convincing response. However, based on hydro-geologists’ observations, they believe that Chennai can survive for one more year without rains.

“Yields may come down, but desalination plants will continue to provide water. The water that we draw from farmers in Poondi may reduce from 100 mld to 50 mld. Quarries will dry up. Our own borewells will continue to yield for about 25 per cent. Next year if the drought situation continues, then we may have to manage the show with around 370 mld. So we can say that we have a water bank for one more year,” says the senior Metro Water official.

The longer term

For a city with abundant water bodies, the acute water crisis it has seen is nothing but a result of unplanned water management. According to a news report published in The Hindu the total number of water bodies in Chennai region was around 650 two and a half decades ago. Only a fraction of it exists now as per the Second Master Plan.

In July 2016, while presenting the State budget, then Finance Minister O Panneerselvam had announced plans of reviving Kudimaramath, an ancient system of maintaining and managing water bodies by local communities.

While the work on restoration of waterbodies in and around Chennai is yet to begin, CMWSSB sees only two solutions to the impending water problem. One is to build more desalination plants, and two, implement water recycling meticulously.

Chennai already has two desalination plants and a new plant of 150 mld capacity is expected to be ready by 2020. The tender has been called for this plant and the closing date for the tender is August 31st. Yet another desalination plant of 400 mld capacity is proposed but it is still in the discussion stage.

The CMWSSB official says, “the second and important solution is to ensure mandatory water recycling. Every campus should have a water recycling unit. We have made it mandatory for all multi-storied buildings (G+3 and above) to have water recycling units, last April. No new sewage connections will be given unless they have dual piping,” the officials says.

When he says dual piping, he implies installation of a separate pipe for grey water (non-toilet water). “So far, everything was getting mixed up with STP. Now we want people to follow dua; piping very strictly. Let the toilet water go to the STP and get treated, but the grey water should be filtered and it could be used for gardening or pumped for flushing. These rules were formed in 2002 but not implemented.”

While CMWSSB’s focus on water recycling can be expected to reduce fresh water usage and ease supply constraints to some extent, one cannot help wonder what will happen to the less privileged people living in the 350 odd streets of Chennai that do not get piped water supply at all? Will Chennai’s water administration continue to give them water even if the total supply is reduced to 370 mld next year, and from which source? Only time can tell.

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