Girija J begins her day at 4 am with a fight. The fight is over water.
The 35-year-old, a domestic worker in a working class neighbourhood in Jaffarkhanpet area of Chennai, has a body clock which is set to go off at exactly 4 am. If her tired-out body and brain try to steal a few extra winks, she can always rely on that gnawing nightmare to jolt her awake – that her family would go thirsty and hungry because she ‘overslept’.
She secures four pots of precious water from the community hand pump down the street, every morning. Her balancing act is ballerina -level, having tramped up the roads many mornings with two buckets filled to brim nestled in the crook of her hips. It’s all part of the existential hazard of living on the economic fringes in water-starved Chennai.
The four reservoirs in Chennai — Chembarambakkam, Poondi, Red Hills and Cholavaram — that are almost empty are the sources of supply of water to Metro tankers.
Chokalingam V, a security guard from Abhiramaputam in Chennai, starts his day as early as 2 am. That is the time the tanker delivers water to his locality. The 84-year-old said that there are brawls every day over water when the metro tanker arrives. "The taps have run dry. There is no bore water in our locality." The last option, for most of Chennai is the Metro tankers, but they only arrive every alternate day. "My family of eight struggle to manage with just four buckets," he said.
The Tamil Nadu government says that it is looking at tapping newer sources, wells and lakes from outside the city and modern techniques including cloud seeding, though their viability is in question. Regulating bore wells so as to allow indiscriminate sucking of water is also on the card.
“We are looking at wastewater treatment. Right now, the capacity of the two desalination plants is 210 MLD. We increased the capacity of one desalination plant from 100 to 110. We have issued an order for a third desalination plant last month and it will take at least one and a half years for it to be commissioned. Right now, 20 MLD of desalination water is given for the industrial purpose. The tertiary treatment reverse osmosis (TTRO) plants will be operational by August and once this happens, we will be able to use 20 MLD of desalination water for the public, " Harmander Singh, Principal Secretary Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department, Government of Tamil Nadu said.
The state has been trying to tap water sources for Chennai through agricultural wells. The tankers drive out of the city to the farms, fill up and come back to the city, every day. Government sources said 55 million litres a day are tapped from 140 agricultural wells. Plans are afoot to expand that number from wells in Thamaraipakkam and other areas.
For cooking, Girija depends on bubble-top water costing Rs 40 a piece. “We used to buy one water can for drinking. It would last us two days. But in the summers, we need more.” The mother of two earns about Rs 12,000 a month, with barely any help from her wayward husband who, at times, does odd jobs in plumbing. The cost of water shortage is acutely felt. For Girija's family, the monthly expense on water is at least Rs 1,200, forcing them to cut down on milk and vegetables to make ends meet.
Girija epitomises the suffering in Chennai's parched conditions. The inability to afford private water tankers that charge a minimum of Rs 5,000 for a full refill, coupled with the state's struggle to meet the demand for its own contracted tankers, Girija is at the mercy of the common tank in the neighbourhood.
Despite the brawls in the alleys every morning, it isn't enough. "You are allowed just three pots, at the maximum four. If you push it, you get it,” she said.
As the crisis deepens, the inequalities of Chennai are surfacing: the lower classes who cannot afford tanker lorries are suffering inordinately. For the middle class, it’s time to save water and for the well-off, it’s largely an inconvenience.
The city residents are completely dependent on water tankers. There are two options: Private or Metro water. Often, they have to wait for more than a month to receive water from the metro tanker and although private tankers deliver water in a week’s time, it is at an exorbitant amount. “We rely more on private water tankers because the waiting period is three to four days. If we are regular customers, we get it on a daily basis," said Krishna V a resident of Boat Club Road, a posh locality in Chennai.
Krishna said that his apartment association has increased maintenance to Rs 3,000 from the earlier Rs 1,600 because of the water crisis. The water crisis in the city has left everyone facing the heat.