Featured Image: A man uses a hand-pump to fill up a container with drinking water as others wait in a queue on a street in Chennai, India, June 17, 2019. Picture taken June 17, 2019. REUTERS/ P. Ravikumar
The ongoing water crisis in Chennai is somewhat similar to what Cape Town went through from mid-2017 to 2018. But unlike the South African city which planned and handled the crisis professionally, Chennai’s administrators and the state government just let the tragedy hit the city.
Months ahead of the impending water crisis, Cape Town planned restricting water supply and usage at various levels leading to ‘Day Zero’ that indicated the start of Level 7 water restrictions where municipal water supplies were to be shut down completely and water rationed. Cape Town was the first major city in the world to potentially run out of water, and will not be the last.
Through these measures, Cape Town was able to curtail water usage and succeeded in drastically reducing its daily water usage by more than half, to around 500 million litres per day in March 2018. The major fall in water usage, combined with heavy rainfall in June 2018, caused dam levels to steadily increase, and the city managed to avoid the dreaded ‘Day Zero’.
But what did the authorities in Chennai do? Instead of planning, the government and authorities were in perpetual denial mode while conducting fanciful yagnas for rain. Tamil Nadu Rural and Municipal Administration Minister SP Velumani was in denial mode, claiming there was no water shortage in Chennai, and the Chennai Metro Water authorities were only busy fire-fighting the problem.
Chennai and other major cities and towns in India should learn from Cape Town’s planning, especially when there is acute water shortage every summer due to erratic monsoon and groundwater depletion.
Unlike in Cape Town, Chennai’s water crisis was man-made.
Due to rapid urbanisation, lack of proper planning, corruption in issuing building permits and encroachments, the area of the water bodies in Chennai city and its suburbs shrunk from nearly 12.6 sq. km. in 1893 to an abysmal 3.2 sq. km now.
The erstwhile Madras had 60 large water bodies in the core of the city in the 1940s. In 2017, this number is just 28. These water bodies too may vanish soon to land sharks.
Water bodies started vanishing and shrinking rapidly after 1960 due to urbanisation. Lakes and temple tanks were the first targets. Instead of expanding the city’s boundaries, authorities gobbled up lakes in a hunger for money and criminal short-sightedness.
If this trend continues, Chennai could soon be heading towards not just water shortage, but a full-fledged ecological disaster.
The vanishing lakes have also led to massive depletion of groundwater levels as there is no means of recharging the water table.
And rapid loss of natural lakes has led to local flooding and increased saltwater intrusion. In fact, every incident of local flooding in the city can be traced to a vanished waterbody in the neighbourhood.
The massive 2015 Chennai floods can be seen as a move by nature to reclaim its lost water bodies. The floods were not just due to heavy rainfall- the mismanagement of lakes and negligence in protecting linking channels also played a major role. Old Chennai, rather Madras in the 1940s, had a chain of 16 tanks in Vyasarpadi alone that acted as control valves to prevent flooding.
There are various studies and recommendations on tackling water shortage and flooding. These include rejuvenating smaller ponds, demarcation of groundwater protection zones, construction of check dams across waterways and additional subsurface storage tanks.
But there should be a government to implement all this. The present government led by Edappadi Palaniswami is fighting only for survival, not water. The situation is so bad that IT companies have asked employees to work from home, and small hotels and lodges and even some private schools have shut down. ‘Water rage’ has become common on the streets of Chennai.
All the four major reservoirs that supply drinking water to Chennai have almost dried up and the city is now dependent on its three mega desalination plants.
The government has announced bringing water by train wagons from Jollarpettai in Vellore for the next six months. But that is not a sustainable solution.
Lakes have vanished not just in Chennai. The city’s neighbouring districts of Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur were once known as ‘Yeri (lake) districts’ with over 6,000 lakes, ponds and reservoirs. These water bodies minimised run-off loss of rainwater and kept replenishing the groundwater table. Today, there are just 3,896 yeris or lakes.
Chennai also had three ‘rivers’ crisscrossing the city – Cooum, Buckingham Canal and Adyar. All the three are now wide, stinking gutters filled with filth and untreated sewage.
The Tamil Nadu government should stop all the yagnas for rain and, instead, plan for years ahead. 2019 has been a wakeup call for not just Chennai, but cities all over India.