Think Chennai’s water worries are gone after Dec rains? Think again!

Even as the torrential rains in December improved groundwater tables, unchecked extraction of groundwater by water tankers is a cause for worry. Who will bell this cat?

Even as the mercury soars, the increase in groundwater level and storage in reservoirs have eased the concern of residents over water shortage in many parts of Chennai. After the record rainfall last year that resulted in severe flooding, the ground water level in many areas around the city has increased by 6-8 metres, with some areas even recording an increase of 10.5 metres, according to the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB/Chennai Metro Water).  According to official sources, though the sustenance of ground water level depends on soil condition and extent of extraction of water from groundwater sources, the current situation would help sustain groundwater recharge till June.

Last year the city had faced severe water shortage; the Cholavaram reservoir went dry, the water level at Poondi reservoir, which stores water from Krishna river, went down to  54 million cubic feet (mcft) against its capacity  of over 11,000 mcft.

In 2014, Chennai Metro Water was supplying just 600 MLD (Million liters per day) while it had supplied 831 MLD in 2013. This year too CMWSSB is supplying 600 million litres on alternate days.  The water requirement of the city in 2017 is projected at 1,584 MLD, which is three times the quantity currently supplied by CMWSSB.

The water requirement of the city in 2017 is projected at 1,584 MLD, which is three times the quantity currently supplied by CMWSSB.

Poondi Reservoir. Pic: Puzhal2015, Wikimedia Commons

Poondi Reservoir. Pic: Puzhal2015, Wikimedia Commons*

Chennai’s main water sources are: Red Hills, Cholavaram, Poondi and Chembarambakkam; Cauvery water from New Veeranam Project; Nemmeli and Minjur desalination plants, and Krishna water sourced from Andhra Pradesh through the Krishna Water Supply Project. The rise in population and the quick pace of urbanization have resulted in increased dependence on groundwater in areas like Minjur, Panjetty, Tamaraipakkam, Poondi, and Kannigaiper, and Tiruvallur.

According to CMWSSB, out of the 600 MLD, 180 MLD is sourced from Veeranam Tank, 200 MLD from two desalination plants, 70 MLD from bore wells and the balance from city reservoirs. Desalination accounts for a quarter of the city’s water supply today. Consistent monsoon rains in the recent years and the introduction of rainwater harvesting (RWH) measures by the government have also contributed to reducing the impact of water shortage in the city.

Pipeline carrying water to Chennai from the Minjur desalination plant. Pic: Chennai Metro Water

Pipeline carrying water to Chennai from the Minjur desalination plant. Pic: Chennai Metro Water**

Water tankers

With the increase in number of water tankers tapping water from groundwater sources in nearby villages, groundwater is being extracted at an increased rate. As of  July 2015, Metro Water had supplied 38-40 million litres a day of water through tankers of 6 kl, 9 kl and 16 kl capacities. The number of trips of the 530 lorries had increased from 3,500 trips to 4,900 trips daily, out of which 1,900 trips were given for payment alone.

Metro Water supplied 38-40 million litres a day until July 2015. The number of trips made by 530 lorries increased from 3,500 to 4,900 trips daily.

“Metro Water is supplying water in T. Nagar area daily, but the quantity supplied is inadequate,” says V.S.Jayaraman, President of T.Nagar Residents Welfare Association. “We have raised this issue with the CMWSSB authorities and have been told that the board will do whatever is possible soon.” “There are open wells in the area and water level has increased after the monsoon. So we don’t have to depend on private suppliers who charge exorbitant rates even when there is no assurance of water quality”

Come summer, this is a common sight in Chennai. Pic: McKay Savage, Wikimedia Commons***

Come summer, this is a common sight in Chennai. Pic: McKay Savage, Wikimedia Commons***

But, residents and commercial entities in many parts of the city are not that lucky; they have to depend on the private water suppliers as the CMWSSB is unable to meet increasing demand. They have to shell out a huge amount of money as prices shoot up every year. Activist R. Srinivasan estimated that the tanker industry that was increasingly drawing water from Mamandur, Palur, Karungizhi, Tiruporur, Puvirundavalli, Meenjur,  Gummidipundi and Kanaigiper, using 13,000 water tankers, was worth Rs 600-crore in 2005. Water is sold at a price many times higher than the amount paid to the well-owners.

Private lorry operators draw water from borewells in areas such as Medavakkam, Ponmar, Ambattur and Madhavaram, and transport it to the city. Activists point out that the extensive extraction of groundwater from these nearby villages have turned agricultural land into dry lands. This is cited as one of the main reasons for shrinking farmlands in the suburbs. Ground water extraction has also resulted in water shortage in areas like Sonallur, Vengadamangalam and Panankattupakkam.

The CMWSSB charges Rs. 2.50 – Rs.25/kilo litres from residential units while commercial units are charged Rs. 35- 60/kl. Last year, CMSWWB had announced that the private water suppliers would provide water at the rate of Rs 1,200 for 12 kl and Rs 2,200 for 20 kl. But according to private water tankers associations, the rate had to be increased to Rs 2000 for 12 kl and Rs 3,000 for 20 kl.

Tanker rates set by CMSWWB – Rs 1,200 for 12 kl and Rs 2,200 for 20 kl

Rates tanker associations want – Ts 2,000 for 12 kl and Rs 3,000 for 20 kl


According to the Chennai Metropolitan Area Groundwater (Regulation) Act 27 (1987) to control and  regulate the abstraction and  transportation of ground water, the CMSSWB  can grant or refuse license for using extracting ground water based on the following factors : the purpose for which the ground water is used; existence of competitive user, availability of ground water, effect on other sources of water supply, compatibility with the existing water supply system, and the availability of factors controlling or preventing pollution. But, earlier  attempts to monitor the extraction of ground water from bore wells and quality of water supplied, by the government was met with resistance from the private tanker operators. In the last few years, the city had witnessed strikes by private water tanker operators when tankers were seized for illegal tapping or for transporting non-potable water.

Though official data on the current status of licensing procedure is unavailable, according to reports, till 2012 there wasn’t any enforcement mechanism in place to check exploitation of groundwater and sinking of bore wells. According to Water resources Department (WRD), a proposal to empower WRD to monitor the sinking of bore wells and tapping of ground water is waiting for approval by State and Central government. (Officials from CMSSWB were not available to comment on the current status of the licensing procedure).

Way ahead: Community-based water management?

A study on tanker water market in Chennai published in Water International (May, 2010) cites the  lack of ground water availability in private wells and unreliable piped water supply as the reasons for increased dependence on tanker water supply.  The private water tankers emerged as influential players during the 2003-04 drought, when the reservoirs in Chennai went completely dry and the piped supply system was shut down for almost a year.

Researchers and activists point to the need for community participation in managing water resources and improving the facilities for RWH. V Suresh, Human rights and water Justice activist (and Supreme Court-appointed advisor for TN for the Commissioners on Food Security), cite the example of Palangarai Village to emphasize the importance of public participation in water management.

Palangarai is one of the 153 village Panchayats in 29 districts in Tamil Nadu where the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD) had launched the ‘Democratisation of Water Management’ programme in 2004. With the help of TWAD, the villagers improved the water storage structures by deepening, repairing, and constructing new check dams. They planted  and protected around 7,000 trees; removed encroachments in water storage areas like water tanks, ponds and channels by forging collective consensus; and stopped illegal tapping of water. By the end of 2006, the monsoon water table had improved by 400 feet from 1200 to 800 feet.  According to Suresh, focusing on reform of governance is more or as important in managing water resources than financial or technological solutions.

Monsoon water table in Palangarai increase from 800 feet to 1200 feet in 2006.

Meanwhile, some initiatives in Bengaluru show that it is possible to adopt sustainable water management practices. T-Zed Homes in Whitefield, a community of 96 homes has proved to be self-sufficient in water management. It completely treats its sewage water and uses it again, straight from the kitchen tap, following the principle of ‘Reduce, Replenish, Reuse, Recycle’.

At Rainbow Drive on Sarjapur Road, rainwater harvesting solutions – involving rooftop harvesting, private recharge wells, collection into sumps, and rain barrels for utility water storage, and a fair and balanced water pricing policy to encourage conservation helped them become water independent.

In future articles, we will explore water initiatives in Chennai that have made a difference.

Pic credits:

* By Puzhal2015 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


***By McKay Savage from London, UK [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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