Chennai water crisis once again exposes the city’s climate vulnerability

  • Chennai, the sixth-largest city in the country is going through a severe water scarcity.
  • The four reservoirs that supply water to the city are dry, and with groundwater levels having receded, there are altercations at the water supply points.
  • While there is international attention on Chennai’s current water shortage, in November-December 2015 the city was in similar lime light due to a devastating flood that cost more than 400 lives and billions in rupees in damages.
  • This swing between too much and too little water is the story of Chennai’s increasing vulnerability to climate change.

It is noon and the scorching heat of Chennai’s sun hits across S. Punitha’s face. She has just filled her first pot for the day from a hand pump in Vyasarpadi, located in the northern pockets of Chennai. As she carries the green-coloured plastic pot to her house across the road, her 11-year-old daughter fills the next pot. Five such rounds later, she is done for the day.

Punitha, or the others standing next to the hand pump, are unable to recollect when exactly the water taps in their houses went dry. After a small discussion, they arrive at a conclusion that it was somewhere around January-February when a majority of the water connections failed.

Unlike Punitha, 50-year-old Ravi who is a daily wage worker has to walk about a kilometre with water-filled pots to reach his house. He does at least 10 trips a day back and forth with water pots. “My family of five can’t afford to buy the 20 litres water can for Rs. 35 on a daily basis. We use this for cooking and drinking too.”

He added, “My condition is better, there are people who come here, from as far as five to six km to collect water.”

Padmavathi, travels about three km on her two-wheeler bike to fetch water for her and her sister’s house. The old well in her house that “has never gone dry, is empty now.”

About 15 km away, living in a housing board flat near Padi, Maheshwari who works as a domestic help said she went hunting for water, last week, after she missed fetching water from the water tanker.

“I work at five houses. I step out of the house around 8 in the morning, by the time I return home it is evening. The tanker usually comes in the morning and since it didn’t come that day, I left for work. It had arrived just few hours after I left and I missed it,” said Maheswari.

“I would have walked at least five km searching for water that day,” she added.

Ironically, within the 10 km radius of Maheswari’s house are the Puzhal lake (also known as Red Hills lake), Retteri, Ambattur, Korattur and Ayanambakkam lakes.

Chennai residents wait for hours to collect water from public taps. Photo by Dharani Thangavelu.

Reservoirs run totally dry

With all the four reservoirs— Chembarambakkam, Poondi, Puzhal and Cholavaram— that cater to the 4.64 million population of Chennai city (according to Census 2011, the Chennai Metropolitan Area population is 8.65 million) having gone dry, India’s sixth largest city has run out of its drinking water.

While big apartment complexes and high-end residential areas have been able to afford private water tankers, the slums that are home to more than 25 percent of the total population of Chennai are now dependent on the metro water tankers where the waiting period has gone beyond 20 days, in many areas.

Tamil Nadu’s capital city is currently dependent on two desalination units and water tankers from districts around Chennai. The Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board’s (CMWSSB) managing director T.N. Hariharan claimed that the water supply to Chennai has reduced from 830 to 525 million litres a day (mld).

Meanwhile, the managing director of Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage (TWAD) Board C.N. Maheswaran confirmed that there is water scarcity in 17 districts across the state.

Over the last few weeks, major clashes have erupted among residents of the city, educational institutions have reduced the working hours, hotels, restaurants and corporate firms have cut down operations: all due to the water crisis.

However, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) state government has been in denial. Earlier this week, Fisheries Minister D. Jayakumar said, “There is no crisis, it is just scarcity.”

Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami even stated, last week, that the water crisis was being blown out of proportion by the media. When Kerala Government offered 20 lakh litres of drinking water to Tamil Nadu using rail wagons, the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s office neither declined nor accepted the offer, but, claimed that there was “no immediate necessity.”

This summer, the heat wave that gripped the country including Chennai made the situation worse, and for most part of June the temperature soared above 40 degree Celsius in the city.

The rainfall during the current southwest monsoon has so far been 38 percent below normal in this southwest monsoon, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD).  Last week, parts of Chennai received mild showers after having gone without rains for 196 days. Chennai which receives its maximum share of rainfall during the northeast monsoon has recorded 5.9 mm this month (until June 24) as against 56 mm.


Blue and green has been steadily changing to brown

The water shortage in Chennai has made international news, with attention focused on cities running dry. There was news of Cape Town in South Africa running dry and projections about Bengaluru following suit in not-so-distant future.

Globally, with more people moving into cities for their employment and livelihoods, and with many smaller urban centres turning into bigger cities, the fear and concern is genuine. Cities are locations of consumption, where the residents are either unaware or do not care from where they get their natural resources. It is only during crisis situations such as this do the city residents introspect on their consumption loops and ecological footprints.

In addition to international media coverage about Chennai’s situation, celebrity voice was added when Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio talked about the city’s situation through an Instagram post.

Ironically, while Chennai is getting international attention due to water shortage in June 2019, in November-December 2015 the city was in similar lime light due to a devastating flood that cost more than 400 lives and billions in rupees in damages. This swing between too much and too little water is the story of Chennai’s increasing vulnerability to climate change.

According to the Tamil Nadu State Action Plan for Climate Change, extreme weather events such as the 2015 floods and the 2019 drought are going to become more frequent in the state. In the decades leading to 2100, the annual average rainfall in Tamil Nadu is projected to reduce by 9 percent, and the annual maximum temperature will increase by 3.1 degrees Celsius. There will be less rainfall in the southwest monsoon and more rain during the northeast monsoon season. This is of significance for Tamil Nadu, since it is the southwest monsoon that provides a steady supply of rain water for agriculture and for filling reservoirs. The northeast monsoon, on the other hand, is more of a string of cyclonic events that bring heavy rainfall over short bursts of time thereby making it less usable.

Chennai’s problem is that its water availability is mostly from outside the city and not from within the surface of the metropolis. The four reservoirs are located upstream of the city and divert the water of the Kosasthalaiyar, Cooum and Adayar rivers. When these three rivers plus Araniyar flow through the city, they have lost their incoming water and carry the waste that fall into them. Thus, their ability to recharge the aquifer is dramatically reduced in the city.

Adding to this has been the neglect of the city’s water bodies and green patches over the past decades. According to maps prepared by the Care Earth Trust, with increasing urbanisation these patches of blue (wetlands) and green (vegetation) have consistently changed to brown of the buildings and other structures.

Read more: Looking beyond the Chennai city, at the Chennai watershed.

“Drought does not happen in quick time. The current drought has been building since the 2015 floods, when in its immediate aftermath the effort was to empty the water bodies,” said Jayshree Vencatesan, managing trustee of Care Earth Trust, an NGO working for the conservation of Chennai’s wetlands.”The city should be looking at ways to hold water on its surface by increasing permeable ground area and conserving the water bodies.”

Over the decades, Chennai lost its ability conserve water in situ, with all the interventions bringing water from outside into the city. Historically, water has been moved into Chennai from Veeranam lake in Cuddalore district, and from the Krishna river in Andhra Pradesh. In more recent years, two 100 million litres per day (mld) desalination plants are operational, and another 150 mld plant is in the development process.

“Last year there was an overall 800 mm rainfall in Chennai and if the expanded Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA) – including Kancheepuram, Tiruvallur and Arrakkonam taluk, is also considered we had about 1200 mm of rainfall. If proper water accounting and auditing was done we could have easily managed it this summer for the more 8,000 area that constitute CMA,” said G. Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an environmental organisation based in Chennai.

“The fundamental option is to catch water where it falls. Rest of the methods are purely secondary,” he added.

While the neglect of in situ conservation is making the situation worse for the city during this dry period, it also led to severe flooding during the November-December 2015 floods. These cascade of wetlands and water bodies hold water when it rains and stores it for the dry period. With these structures becoming ineffective over decades, the city is vulnerable to both drought and floods. With climate change, both these extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent.


Photo by Steevez Rodriguez/PEP collective.

There is a law to harvest rainwater, but then …

In 2001, when Chennai was going through a similar water crisis, the then state government passed a legislation. In a first in India to make rainwater harvesting mandatory across all houses and buildings in the state and, the scheme was promoted aggressively. Though only few structures installed were effective, the groundwater levels in Chennai did replenish after a torrential downpour in 2005.

The union government’s report in 2011 titled Groundwater scenario in major cities of India stated that the rooftop rainwater harvesting made mandatory by the Tamil Nadu government has indeed improved the water level but due to lack of periodical maintenance, the effect reduced over the period of time.

More than 15 years later, the situation has completely reversed. The Niti Aayog’s report published last year gave alarming details: 21 major cities including Chennai will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting approximately 100 million people.

Chennai also needs more recycling

“Until 20 to 25 years ago the idea of classical civil engineering was to concretise urban spaces, control the nature and to harness energy. For example, floods merely meant evacuation. Only in recent times, the necessity for civil engineering to work hand-in-hand with environmental science has become mainstream,” said Jeyannathann Karunanithi who works for the International Water Association (IWA) in Chennai.

Environmentalists suggest that reuse and recycle of wastewater as an immediate solution to tackle the water crisis and, a committed and sustained approach to desilt and restore water bodies. Even as the state government is making efforts to launch two more desalination plants to tackle the water woes, environmentalists warn that it will be another ecological disaster as it may affect the sand dunes, lead to sea erosion, damage marine life, and increase the salinity of water table.

According to a 2018 report by the IWA, there is a need to reuse and recycle wastewater. Around 80 percent of all wastewater – one of the most under-exploited resources – is discharged into the world’s waterways creating health, environmental and climate-related hazards. While using more of the dwindling resources, urbanisation has further exacerbated this challenge with increasing wastewater generation.

Chennai already has wastewater treatment mechanism and 15 percent of the city’s water demand is achieved through recycling as per CMWSSB. This may need to increase. For a city that packs 26,553 people in every square km, conserving water is the best way to deal with drought, and also floods.


Banner image: Chennai residents collecting water from a tanker. Photo by Steevez Rodriguez/PEP collective.

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