Nemmeli: Quenching Chennai’s thirst, but at what cost?

The Nemmeli desalination plant is one of the key sources of water for the city. The fisherfolk of the Sulerikatukuppam village have, however, seen the other side of it, as they find their lives and livelihood ruined by its presence.

With increasingly erratic monsoons, water-sharing disputes with other states and steady decline in ground water levels, Chennai’s problems over water scarcity seem unrelenting. Not surprisingly, therefore, its two desalination plants in Nemmeli and Minjur hold great significance as far as meeting the city’s water needs is concerned. But are these solutions really optimal and ideal, or is there more beneath the surface?  

The operation of the Nemmeli desalination plant, located around 40 km from the heart of the city, began in 2013 after the technology was successfully piloted for the first time through the setting up of the Minjur plant in 2010. A new desalination plant at Perur in Nemmeli with a capacity of 400 mld has also been cleared and is expected to cost Rs 3912 crore.

Both the Minjur and Nemmeli plants currently have a capacity of 100 mld (million litres per day) and meet close to 30 percent of the city’s total water needs. And yet, the latter seems to come with a whole set of problems for a section of the people.

Collateral Damage

While the desalination plant has been a boon for the parched city, it has robbed a small fishing village of its livelihood. The Sulerikatukuppam village has a population of 1500 persons, including children. Post-tsunami, Rotary Clubs of Madras and Bombay supported the construction of 165 houses and several community structures on the beach. Most residents rely on the sea for their daily bread.

When the proposal to set up the sea water desalination plant in their village was mooted, the residents of the area were apprehensive. After repeated reassurance from officials — ranging from the collector of Kanchipuram to officials at the fisheries department — they allowed the setting up of the plant. In return, they were promised jobs at the plant, one for each household.

They were also offered a compensation of Rs 2000 per household per month, for loss of livelihoods, during the time of construction and operation of the plant. The villagers allege that while the company followed through on these assurances, they reneged on the promise of jobs and compensation after a year.

“We were told that one person from each house would get a job but they did not keep the promise. We were also told that we would be given land and be resettled in a different area once the plant became operational. That was also denied later. The plant has had a huge negative impact on the village as we do not get the same amount of fish anymore. The brine has killed all the fish and the plankton,” says Muthukrishnan S of Sulerikatukuppam.

According to design, the Nemmeli plant produces 60 mld of brine over the course of the desalination process. According to the mandate of the Coastal Regulation Zone rules, this brine water and other toxins produced as part of the process are to be released at least 500 metres into the sea. A quick inspection of the plant shows that the cement pipes laid to carry the brine water for discharge into the sea are now broken, resulting in a large quantum of untreated water being released by the beach and along the coastline.

Villagers say that since the setting up of the plant, the sea has advanced significantly. The dilapidated remains of two buildings, one a community centre and another an ice facility that was built by the Rotary club, stand destroyed allegedly due to changes in the nature of the coastline caused by the desalination plant.

Pipes that carry brine water broken, resulting in leakages on the shore. Pic: Prakash Ghimirey

“The buildings here were built by the Rotary club after the tsunami struck the village. When the plant was set up, huge rocks for the coffer dam were dumped into the sea to lay the pipes. They were supposed to be removed subsequently, but the company did not do that. This resulted in the sea advancing and the buildings getting destroyed. The sea has advanced by 500 metres since the plant became functional. We live in constant fear that it will advance further,” says K Shankar, a fisherman. 

“The erosion in Nemmeli was caused by the construction of a ramp to transfer equipment for the plant. The ramp was perpendicular to the coast and was in place for two years. This affected the littoral drift of sand and triggered the erosion as Nemmeli was a stable coast prior to this,” says Pooja Kumar, coordinator of the Coastal Resource Centre.

Impact on small enterprise

It’s not just the fisherfolk of Sulerikattukuppam who were affected by the changes in the coastline. P. Balaji, a homestay owner along the East Coast Road close to the village has grievances too.

“I bought land here in the late 2000s but had not constructed any building. When the desalination plant was set up, the land I had purchased went underwater due to the effects of its construction and operation. In 2013 I was not able to claim a portion of my land as the sea water had advanced there. Only around 2015 did the water recede a little and I was able to construct a bungalow here that I sometimes rent out to tourists. It has been a harrowing experience,” says Balaji.

Hatchery owner E Balasundaram lost the bulk of his business when the Sand Beach in Sulerikadu went under due to the plant. His business, Seven Staar Hatchery, was flooded by the sudden advancement of sea water. “I did not expect this at all. Around the time the plant was constructed, the villagers were protesting. One fine day my business too was affected as the premises got completely flooded. I had no recourse and had to shut down operations until the water receded. It has taken me years to get back on my feet after that incident.”

Out of sight, out of mind

The Fisheries Department which looks into the welfare of the fisherfolk has all but relinquished any responsibility for the residents of Sulerikattukuppam. “We heard about the problems of the fishermen. But if you ask me, some of them have been doing this (complaining) as they were promised jobs. They were not happy with what they were offered and have now started protesting against the plant”, says Thirunavukkarasu, Additional Director of Fisheries, Neelankarai.

While he adds that he is sure the residents have legitimate grievances, he also says that they did not receive any promise in writing at the time of setting up of the plant. He says that the fisheries department has not found anything out of the ordinary in the catchment area and that there is still fish available. As for the plant itself, the official said that it has been designed with the best possible specifications in terms of technology, but that whatever grievance the residents had might be because of how it is being operated.

The people however continue to voice their concerns. “Our families do not have jobs anymore. The groundwater has become too salty and there have been many instances of the villagers contracting diseases. We have not been able to link it to the plant as we do not have the resources to commission studies or investigations to provide proof.” 

“After the construction of the plant, the main issue has been the disposal of brine, which is supposed to be discharged where dilution is easier, but what is being done here is that the brine is let off on the beach; this makes the near-shore water becomes extremely saline, affecting fish breeding and affecting the catch”, says Pooja.

Brine pools on the shore as a result of broken pipes.

Muzzled voices

To add to their woes, villagers cannot rule out backlash against them. They had first  raised their voice against the plant once in 2013 right after its inauguration. But they were immediately stifled by a case lodged against them by the company. Close to 40 fishermen were imprisoned for over a month at the Puzhal prison. They had to fight a protracted legal battle to win the case and exonerate their men.

During that time, a fact-finding report by the Chennai Solidarity Group had visited the site, only to find that the authorities had violated several laws in the setting up and operation of the plant. The report stated

“.. the act of discharging wastewater on to the beach, thereby polluting the drinking water source of the village has violated the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act. The Coastal Regulation Zone Notifications of 1991 and 2011 were also violated by (the act of) pumping out freshwater from the CRZ area..”

A comparison of the coastline through Google Earth, showing the changes since the construction of the plant. (L) May 2009 (R) January 2013

What lies ahead?

If the authorities go ahead with the plan to set up the new plant in Nemmeli, Sulerikatukuppam will be flanked by two desalination plants. Asked if the villagers plan to oppose the new facility if and when it is built, Muthukrishnan’s response is mellow.

“We will not be staging any protest. Four collectors have changed from the period the plant here was initialised until now. We have petitioned all of them and they are aware of the issue but have failed to act on it. We have spent a lot of money fighting the case they lodged against us. We cannot do it another time.”

“We do not have any fight left in us. If they want to build a new plant we will not oppose it, as we have resigned ourselves to fate. We do not want to go to prison again,” says Shankar too.

Despite the overriding feeling of resignation, the villagers of Sulerikatukuppam have tried to alert the adjoining Nemmeli kuppam about the dangers of agreeing to the construction of the new facility. They say that the fisherfolk there have also, like them, been enticed with promises of monthly compensation and offer of jobs to the educated youth of the area.

“Whenever our issues are brought up we have had the people and authorities say that this plant has been providing drinking water to thousands of people and that we should think of their welfare. But I want to ask, who is looking out for us? We are also part of this land. I am not against others benefitting from the water released by the plants, but people must also think, at what cost?” asks Muthukrishnan.

Efforts to reach VA Tech Wabag, the company operating the plant, did not yield any response from their end.


  1. Chandra Shekhar A K says:

    As Dr Abdul Kalam had said long ago that Chennai’s water scarcity can be solved in the longrun only through water desalination. Plants for the purpose working or under construction now are no doubt in the right direction but Governments must enforce proper relief and rehabilitation measures for the people affected adversely by the plants and duly comepnsate them for the continuing loss of livelihood or damage to health caused by such plants while taking due steps to enforce proper, healthy and safe disposal of the waste water and brine and chemicals discharged by the plants as byproducts during their operation while ensuring proper sharing of the additional costs of desalination vis-a-vis filtered water from traditional sources as between residential and industrial/commercial water users in the city. While the benefit of cheaper potable water from traditional sources should go entirely to residential users, only the excess of such water over residential use along with desalinated water should go to industrial/commercial users and both charged accordingly. If the quality and safety of desalinated water is better than those of water from traditional sources, cross-use and cross-subsidisation of water from both sources should be done to the benefit of residential users in the interest of public health duly taking into effect the public health costs saved thereby vis-a-vis allowing cleaner water being misused for industrial/commercial purposes. Development with justice and fairness with sustainable eco balance is welcome but not otherwise.

  2. T. D. Babu says:

    No doubt the desalination plant is able to provide drinking water to the city, but the issues such as the brine disposal/ utilisation and soil erosion has not been handled properly. Till uthandi we can already see the boulders have been piled up to control/ prevent erosion, thus changing the profile of our sandy beach, the buffer zone for the coastal lands, now awaiting for a bigger disaster of coastal habitat. Adding to it, we have reduced the CRZ from 1000 meters to 50 meters. This reflects that we are always being firefighters reacting to the situation but not responding with holistic approach

  3. T. D. Babu says:

    The irony is we are spending lots of funds on one hand to drain the rainwater into the sea without allowing it to percolate or without harvesting through lakes, ponds or any other water bodies. On the other hand, we are pumping huge funds in desalination, the seawater without capitalising the natural water cycle and destabilizing the ecosystem in the long run

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