Chennai water woes: 10 million people living through the worst water crisis

by | Jul 10, 2019 | Blogs

Photo: REUTERS / P. Ravikumar

“Water for sanitation is scarce. Laundry and bathing are nothing short of luxury, IT sector companies have asked employees to work from home, malls have closed their wash rooms, Several restaurants have shut down operations, price of bottled water is reported to have gone up four times and citizens barely have access to water”.

This is the grave scenario of one of the largest metro cities of India. The city that was inundated with heavy flood water less than four years ago has now gone almost dry in the midst of a scorching hot summer. Chennai is practically the first Indian city to have gone dry with the Central Water Commission reporting a rainfall deficit of 41 per cent in Tamil Nadu until June 13 this year. Most of Chennai’s population today is dependent on water tankers and curtailed municipal supply for daily requirements of drinking water. Even in the normal times the Metro Water Board is only supplying 830 Millions of Liters Per Day (MLD) while the need is about 1300 MLD. This has now officially been maintained at 500-525 MLD. But the residents in many areas complain that piped water supply by CMWSSB has gone down to 10-20% of the normal supply and waiting for metro water tanker supply can take more than three weeks. Private tankers are selling water by destroying the agricultural land around at a price not affordable for the majority. Poor people living in high density and low-income settlements are the worst hit with this growing water crisis.

What has gone wrong with Chennai water?

Chennai used to be one of the water-surplus metropolitan cities of the country, however the rapid urbanisation, loss of open spaces, wetlands, agricultural lands etc. led to alarming levels of ground water depletion resulting in this grave situation. The study conducted by Centre for Climate Change blamed road construction – highways and flyovers, airports and high-rises for depleting water resources and the study conducted by Anna University found that Chennai has lost 33 per cent of its wetlands in the last decade. During the same period, Chennai lost 24 per cent of agricultural land, crucial for improving groundwater table. Today, the three rivers – the Cooum, the Adyar, and the Kosasthalaiyar – which flow through Chennai into the Bay of Bengal and the Buckingham Canal that connects all the three rivers is dry with the exception of a few patches. These three rivers have been dried due to untreated sewerage, garbage and encroachments with its remaining courses becoming glorified gutters. Similarly reports show that wetlands such as Pallikaranai Marsh, Pulicat Lake, Kattupalli Island, Madhavaram and Manali Jheels and the Adyar Estuary Creek have been encroached upon to expand urban settlements and have gone completely dry.

‘Avoid wasting water and water contamination. We must think that the natural resources including water that we use today are borrowed from our future generations and we must return them safe.’ – Murali Ramisetty

In addition, the impact of drought on women and children is not the immediate loss of crops and livestock but their physical growth which has a knock on effect on their future income, social status, education and violence. To quote a World Bank report “women born during extreme droughts bear the marks throughout their lives, growing up mentally and physically stunted, undernourished and unwell because of crop losses. New data shows that women born during droughts also have less education, fewer earnings, bear more children and are more likely to suffer from domestic violence. Their suffering is often passed on to the next generation, with their children more likely to be stunted and less healthy, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty”.

Time to learn and act decisively

Many other cities in India are destined to meet the same fate as seen in Chennai if serious action is not initiated to plan and implement measures for making our cities’ water supply secure and sustainable. Protective and conservation systems must be established through strict enforcement of laws. Equitable distribution of water must be ensured. Surface water bodies must be protected and rain water harvesting structures must be increased to reduce the run off flows and improve ground water level. Efficient waste water treatment and reuse of the treated water needs to be promoted. Multi-stakeholder platforms need to be built from the local community, ward to city level and responsibility must be shared by everyone to avoid wasting water and water contamination, economise water usage and take all the measures needed for water conservation and improving ground water recharge.

This statement was provided by Murali Ramisetty, Convenor of the Freshwater Action Network South Asia.