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Paani Da- How Chennai Reached The Drought Zone

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.


Water Crisis: Chennai is India’s Cape Town With A Difference

Originally posted on Yahoo India

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.