With Chennai usually not getting heavy rains during the South-West Monsoon it is an excruciating wait of another four months until mid-October when, if the monsoon is bountiful, the crisis will abate, albeit temporarily.
There is a water crisis across India. There has been one for many years. Several solutions have been discussed, but little has been done to make something as essential as water accessible to people. None of this is new. However this year the situation seems to have deteriorated to a point where even politicians who normally make tall promises and provide band aid solutions to tide over the immediate crisis are starting to worry. One city that has been hit very badly is Chennai.
Chennai's problems with water supply are decades old. When this writer was in school three decades ago the city had three large reservoirs (Poondi, Red Hills and Chembarambakkam) and one smaller one (Sholavaram) supplying water to its residents. The population was then around 3.2 million. Today with close to a 10 million population, the city still has the same four reservoirs. The one new reservoir that was promised to be completed by 2016 is yet to be finished. The city now requires over 1,000 million litres of water a day. Currently the supply is less than half of that.
The issues that Chennai faces are very similar to those across India. Rampant encroachment on water bodies, using lakes as dumping grounds, not creating new storage facilities, not using rainwater harvesting as effectively as was done when the programme started and more frequent monsoon failures have left the city in an acute crisis. All four reservoirs together have a current storage of around 30 mcft of water against the total capacity of over 11,200 mcft.
If the city is being kept alive it is because of the two desalination plants that were installed over the last decade and the New Veeranam scheme that former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa implemented to bring water to the city through pipes from the Veeranam lake in Cuddalore, over 200 kms from Chennai. The two 100 million litres per day (mld) desalination plants at Minjur and Nemmeli and the new Veeranam scheme together contribute almost 70% to the present supply that Metrowater (the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board) is providing. Deep borewells have also been dug in nearby districts and water from rock quarries are also being tapped to augment the supply.
Ironically due to the heavy rains in Karnataka last year over 350 tmc ft of water flowed in the Cauvery into Tamil Nadu, more than double of what Karnataka should have given under the Cauvery Verdict of the Supreme Court. Yet there was no place to store the water as it flowed into the sea.
While civic awareness on the need to re-emphasise rainwater harvesting and also to restore water bodies is increasing this in itself can do little more than help to a small extent. Court orders on water body restoration and removal of encroachments are flouted with impunity and with corruption being rampant it is very unlikely that the city can ever restore its lakes effectively.
That leaves Chennai with its only medium term solution — desalination. In 2015, Jayalalithaa announced two new desalination plants for the city, one of capacity 150 mld and another with the capacity of 400 mld. Had the work on these two been completed the city would never have had the present crisis. Yet work on both the plants is yet to even begin. Bureaucratic delays, a court case, environmental clearances, etc, have all led to over four years passing and virtually nothing being done on these two plants. Recently the government announced that work on the 150 mld plant will begin in June and it would be completed by 2021 and the 400 mld plant will see work commencing by the end of this year with a completion date set for 2023.
There have been murmurs in some quarters about the environmental impact of desalination plants, the destruction of marine life in the vicinity and the livelihood issues of fishermen in the area. However, many of these are localised concerns in the vicinity of the plants and the existing two plants do not seem to have caused any large scale environmental degradation.
Desalination plants appear to be the only option capable of providing at least a semi-permanent solution to the chronic water crisis Chennai faces.
Once these two desalination plants are completed, the city will be assured of 750 million litres of water each day which, even allowing for the increasing demand, will ensure a minimum of 50%-60% of the water supply that the city needs. The cost of the two plants together will be around Rs 15,000 crore which the state can afford and with loan agreements in place there are no excuses for any further delays.
Meanwhile, private tankers extracting water from the suburbs of Chennai make a killing. Metrowater supplies 9,000 litres of water for Rs 700—private tankers are charging five times that rate and the price is steadily rising.
So far the citizens have stoically borne the crisis. Long queues of plastic pots are a common sight across the city and people often have to wake up in the middle of the night if the tankers arrive then. However, anger is rising. As IT companies ask staff to work from home, schools change their timings to minimise water use and as even 800 feet borewells run dry, hard questions are being asked of the state government, which true to form has tried to downplay the crisis.
With Chennai usually not getting heavy rains during the South-West Monsoon it is an excruciating wait of another four months until mid-October when, if the monsoon is bountiful, the crisis will abate, albeit temporarily. Next summer it will be back to square one and the long queues with plastic pots will be back on the streets again.Sumanth Raman is a Chennai-based television anchor and political analyst. Views are personal.