Many reasons for Chennai residents to rely on private water tankers

Private water tankers in Chennai bridge the gap between demand and supply of water as residents face issues with Metro Water.

Mohan*, a resident of Thiruvanmiyur, has piped water connection from the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) and a borewell connection at his house. However, he has been unable to use both of these sources of water. This is because the groundwater levels are too low to draw water from the borewell and the piped water is mixed with sewage. Mohan has had to buy water from private water tankers in Chennai, regularly spending at least Rs 4,000 a month, to meet his family’s needs.

Mohan is one of the many residents across the city reliant on the services of private water tankers. Water security for those reliant on these tankers often comes into question when private tankers announce strikes due to run-ins with the law. 

Often when private water tanker suppliers announce a strike, there is a misconception that residents in areas like OMR are the only ones affected. But many parts of the city which suffer due to irregular supply, old infrastructure and contaminated water are increasingly reliant on private tankers for water.

“In reality, around 40% of the residential areas in Chennai buy water from private tankers,” says S Murugan, General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Private Water Lorry Association.

Decade-long wait for piped water supply in OMR

Harsha Koda, Co-founder of the Federation of OMR Resident Association (FOMRRA), explains that the residents of OMR do not have piped water supply from CMWSSB despite decades of living in the area. They also do not have access to alternative sources of water like in other areas that have groundwater owing to the topography of the area.

“The problem arose as the government infrastructure failed to catch up when the builders finished the housing projects that fed into the IT sector in OMR. When the government approved the building plans in 2005-2006 and the constructions were completed in 2009-2010, the basic infrastructures including water supply should have been in place as the government had five years to do it,” he says.

With no groundwater source and piped water supply, private water tankers are their lifeline. 

“We have been paying taxes since 2010 to the government that is supposed to provide us with the facilities. In the past 13 years, the government has not taken any steps to provide water. For the past 13 years and probably for the next five or 10 years, we will be dependent on these private tankers,” he says. “On average, a person living in OMR spends around Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 per month for water. A family of four in OMR spends a minimum of Rs 4,000 on water per month. While a resident in Adyar or T Nagar pays Rs 84 per month for water that has no metering system, we pay Rs 4,000. How is this fair?” he asks.

Pointing out the takeaway from a recent conversation with the CMWSSB officials on the issue of water supply, Harsha says, “The officials informed us that they do not have sufficient water to supply for all the areas that come under the Chennai Metropolitan Area.”

“Since the government does not meet the demands of the people by supplying the water in one way or the other, the private water tankers serve as our only source of water. There are issues in the way these private water tankers operate as they control the pricing. However, if these takers stop supplying water, there is no other alternative for the families residing in OMR,” he adds.

Read more: Illegal extraction and poor rainwater harvesting affect groundwater in Chennai

Low pressure and old pipes add to water supply woes

While the absence of piped water connections makes the OMR residents rely on private tankers, many residential areas in Chennai that have piped water connections have also had to use their services for various reasons.

Suresh Warrier, Secretary of the Kasturba Nagar South Residents Welfare Association, says that the households on the 5th and 6th main roads in Adyar have piped water connections but the supply has been irregular for the past four years. Some houses see frequent blockages in pipelines as they are old. Some other houses have low pressure as they are in elevated areas. 

“When the residents make a complaint, the metro water workers dig the road to look for blocks and other issues. For this, they ask us to pay. Later, they failed to relay the roads properly. No matter how many times the roads are dug, the water supply issue has not been resolved,” he says.

This is the case for more than 200 families in Adyar. However, the CMWSSB has only been attending to individual complaints and has not addressed the larger issue. This makes the residents rely on the groundwater as their next source. However, when the groundwater levels are down, especially during summer, the residents have no other option but to depend on the water tankers, both government and private.

In a similar case, some households in areas like Nehru Colony, Burma Colony, and Teacher’s Colony in Alandur and Madipakkam depend on private tankers as there is a restricted flow in piped water supply due to the elevated landscape of the locality.

tap water
Old pipelines, low pressure, and irregular supply increase the dependency on private tankers even in areas that have piped water connections. Pic: Dineshraj Goomany (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“During summer, as the groundwater levels go down, it will take more than an hour for the overhead tank to fill while it will take less than 30 minutes during the rainy days. As the water supplied through the pipeline is turbid, we end up using more groundwater. This leaves us paying more electricity bills in addition to the money we spend on water tankers. If the water supplied by the CMWSSB is of good quality, it will reduce the amount we spend on electricity and tankers,” says T D Babu, a resident of Sastri Nagar in Adyar.

However, given that the residents have no other choice but to depend on the tankers, Babu also notes that the residents prefer private tankers as the booking system of metro water tankers is not user-friendly. 

“There are many senior citizens in our area. Since the booking for CMWSSB’s water tankers is being made online now, it has become inaccessible for them. This leaves them to depend on private tankers who will provide water through a phone call. The private tankers also supply water much faster than the CMWSSB tankers,” he says adding that the CMWSSB should make the tanker booking system more user-friendly.

Read more: High TDS in water supply affects Valmiki Nagar residents

Contaminated water increases private tanker dependence

Thiyagarajan P, a resident of Krishnamoorthy Nagar in Kodungaiyur, says that they have a well in their house in which they can get water at five feet deep during rainy days. However, the groundwater is contaminated to the extent that it cannot be used. 

“We get three types of water. For household purposes such as bathing, cleaning, and washing, we use the metro water that is supplied through the individual household pipelines. Some areas in Kodungaiyur also have complaints of sewage mixed in the water supplied by CMWSSB, which forces the residents to rely on the tankers,” he says.

Then there are private water tankers that supply water for Rs 10 to Rs 15 per pot. This water is usually used for cooking and sometimes for bathing. “I once saw the workers in the lorry using their feet to check for water levels. It was disgusting and we stopped buying water from the tankers ever since,” he says. 

Since then, they have been buying mineral water cans for Rs 30 to Rs 35 which is used for drinking. Some households in Kodungaiyur also use mineral water for cooking.

Ten years ago the residents in most parts of Adyar used to be able to use the piped water for drinking purposes but that is not the case anymore as the water supplied to some of the areas is highly turbid.

“The colour of the water is very dark. It takes two days for the particles to settle down and be ready to use. However, residents who use pumps to get the water cannot use the water at all. Despite not being in the elevated area, we have not been able to use the piped water supplied by CMWSSB as it is contaminated,” says Babu.

Gomathi, a resident of Valasaravakkam, says that she has been buying water from both government and private tankers for the past year. “We have a piped water connection. However, the pipeline seems to have been broken when they dug the road for some civic works. Ever since the metro water supplied through the pipeline has been contaminated with sewage. The water is brown and also smells bad. So, we stopped using it.”

Read more: Groundwater resources: Why central Chennai has more than other regions

Regularisation of private tankers the need of the hour

While residents are increasingly dependent on private tankers, issues such as strikes and variable pricing have made them weary of the grip the private players have on this basic need. A solution for this issue would be the regularisation of private water tankers that operate in the city.

Murugan says that there are as many as 15,000 private water tankers that supply water to the areas both within and on the outskirts of the city. These tankers draw water from the wells in the farmlands in the suburbs of Chennai from areas like Madhavaram, Majambakkam, Red Hills, Karanodai, Ayanambakkam, Thiruverkadu, Poonamallee, Thirumazhisai, Medavakkam, Padappai and Tambaram.

“Depending on the distance and the quantity of water required, the cost is determined. The cost for 1,000 kiloliters of water may vary from Rs 70 to Rs 110 depending on the distance,” he says.

When asked about the court coming down heavily on the private tankers for exploiting groundwater for commercial purposes, he agrees to the charges of over-extraction.

“Since the government has not regularised the system yet, we are also not sure of how much we are allowed to extract. We extract water based on the demand. On days, when there is no demand, we do not extract. When the water level is as low as 200 feet, it takes almost two hours to fill a tanker. The same tanker will get filled in less than an hour when we extract the water from the well that is 50 feet low. This means we will not only have to spend more time but also pay extra electricity charges when the water level is low. So, we usually do not over-extract/exploit water from the wells where the water level is already low. We travel a few more kilometres to the well where the water levels are high,” he explains.

Other than OMR which completely depends on the private water tankers, these tankers supply water for both residential and commercial purposes across Chennai city. According to Murugan, the private water tankers supply in Chennai constitutes 60% for commercial purposes and 40% for residential purposes. This includes residential areas that already have piped water supply. During summer, the needs of the residential areas will also be more.

The issue is the lack of regularisation of the private water supply system. “The government has only 548 water lorries that too with minimal capacity. The role we play is crucial as we bridge the gap that the government has not been able to meet. The solution to the issue is to regularise the private water supply system,” he emphasises.

After the negotiations following the announcement of a recent strike, the officials have assured the private tankers association that they will provide a license for the wells as a first step in regularisation. 

“The water tankers will also be provided with a licence to draw water in the coming days. Once the licence is provided, it will be regularised,” he says.

What do the residents of Chennai expect the government to do?

  • Supply clean and usable water for areas that have piped water connections
  • Ensure sewage is not mixed with water pipelines
  • Provide piped water connections to areas that do not have facilities so far
  • Make the CMWSSB tanker booking more user-friendly
  • Regularise the private water tanker suppliers by issuing a licence
  • Fix a monitoring system to ensure private tankers do not exploit groundwater sources

Harsha says that the first step should be to initiate a conversation between various departments. “I would like all the officials from various departments involved in deciding the fate of our water supply to sit in one room to talk,” he says. 

A fair ask from a resident who is yet to get piped water supply even after a ten-year wait.

*name changed on request

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