Unlike Cape Town, Chennai wasn’t able to avoid Day Zero.
And like every other crisis, it’s the socially and economically underprivileged folks who suffer the most. When I say ‘socially’, I mean the so-called ‘lower castes’; when I say ‘economically’, I mean low-income households, and also people who don’t live in the acknowledged ‘elite’ areas of the city.
But that’s a post for another blog.
Why is it that in any conversation about resource conservation and regulation, it’s always the ‘role of the individual’ that’s hyped up more than anything else? Of course it’s important- a million drops make an ocean. But is no one going to talk about oil companies choking up the oceans, or about factories releasing their waste into the water and the air? I mean, surely that causes a ton more damage, and directly, than Mrs Sharma refusing to install that rainwater harvesting tank on her terrace.
(Although you absolutely should, Mrs Sharma)
Anyway, dragging myself back on track again: it’s important to note that Tamil Nadu made rainwater harvesting mandatory for all buildings way back in 2003. But here we are, in 2019, and Chennai is running dry as a bone.
Also, considering it’s a city beside the literal sea, one would think that desalination plants might have made some difference, right? So between desalination, Chennai’s average rainfall of 140 cm and the mandatory rainwater harvesting, things should have been great for India’s 6th largest city.
In 2015, Indukanth Ragade, an urban environmentalist, along with Sekhar Raghavan aka Chennai’s Rain Man, carried out a rainwater harvesting survey in the greater Chennai region. Raghavan’s NGO Rain Centre performed the audit at the government’s insistence, as a third party would have greater autonomy.
We surveyed 1100 samples which included independent houses, government buildings, apartments and other units. The areas were categorised as sandy (Kottivakkam and Neelankarai) , clayey (Ambattur and Mogappair) and rocky (Tambaram and Chromepet) based on water retention capacity. We found that most police stations, chief and assistant engineer’s standalone offices, municipality buildings and town Panchayats got rainwater harvesting methods entirely wrong.Indukanth Ragade
And about the desalination plants, well, two were set up in Minjur in north Chennai and Nemmeli on East Coast Road, in 2010 and 2013, respectively. And they did provide drinking water for a good chunk of people, but they not only consume a great deal of energy, but also affect marine life because of the harmful byproducts.
Imagine half a city getting rainwater harvesting wrong, though. Rain Centre’s audit took place in 2015; Jayalalithaa’s government passed the order in 2003. That’s more than ten years of lost rainwater- rainwater that could have been used to recharge the aquifers and groundwater table that the city so desperately needs right now.
That means that the AIADMK government at the time, as well as its successors, didn’t oversee the implementation of the law; they didn’t seek to educate people as required, nor to supervise the building of the rainwater harvesting tanks, and as Rain Centre’s report suggests, they didn’t bother to enforce the periodic checks that the systems need in order to keep them functioning and updated.
Chennai’s current crisis is almost entirely man-made; ‘almost’, because you can’t put the vagaries of climate change on a few legislators, much as I wish that were possible. The Public Works Department and the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) completely dropped the ball on this one. When a city that goes from floods to drought in the space of 24 months (12, actually, since the drought really began last year), you know that there’s more than climate change at work- it’s got some serious resource management issues too.