Empty Reservoirs, Delayed Tankers
Money is Not Enough to Buy Water in Thirsty Chennai.
News18 Immersive
Empty Reservoirs, Delayed Tankers
Money is Not Enough to Buy Water in Thirsty Chennai.
Poornima Murali

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.

Poondi reservoir, one of the major water sources to residents of Chennai has gone bone dry due to acute water shortage prevailing in city. (Photo: PTI)

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.

Puzhal Resorvior

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.

Residents stand in queues to fill vessels filled with drinking water from a water tanker in Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. (Photo: AP)

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.

"There is a massive crisis. Corporation supply is down to a trickle. Some days, it doesn't come at all. We have a bore well but that is sputtering. We buy metro tanker water but we can only order once in 20 days. We are measuring by mug falls and rationing every drop of water. We are actually not having enough showers in a day," said another resident.

Even after the wait, Chennaiites use the tanker supply mostly for washing clothes and cleaning vessels as the quality of water is deteriorating. Most of them have not begun purchasing water cans for cooking.

Over 4 lakh OMR residents are at the mercy of the water tankers to meet their day-to-day water requirements. Since the city is heading towards a crisis, lakhs of people are left in the lurch. Of the 12 lakh residents of OMR, 4 lakh people work in IT firms. Some of the families say they spend 20% of their income on buying water from tankers. “This area’s residents are dependent only on water tankers. Now, restrictions on water tankers placed by officials is causing difficulties for the common people,” said Harsha Koda.

The crisis has hit the business sector too.

Prabhu S, a construction manager, said that water is needed for 90 per cent of the construction work. "There is no groundwater. We used to pay Rs 1,00 for 12,000 litres of water. Now even if we are ready to pay Rs 3000, we don't get water from tankers. Hence most of our projects are delayed," he said.

The hospitality sector, too, is impacted to an extent. Guesthouses and restaurants have either downed shutters or are only able to handle 40% of the operations because of the inadequate supply of water from the state-owned tankers. S Abdul, who works in HH Mansion, said that they have had a water crisis for over a year now. Earlier, they would use borewell water until the shortage started showing signs. In the last two months, they switched to water tankers. Now, even that's not being able to solve the problem. Since June 15, the hotel has been closed.

"Now only if rains, we would be able to run this place," he said.

The taps of most small scale hotels, too, have run dry. If the tanker doesn’t arrive on time, they shut for a few days till they get the 'thanni' lorry. Meanwhile, the more expensive hotels are looking for ways to reduce water usage.

“We used to buy 90,000 litres per day but due to the shortage of suppliers and tankers hiking the price, we are buying 70,000 litres and that too with great difficulty," Vijay Venkatesan, manager at Maris Hotels. Venkatesan said that they have also informed their customers to judiciously use water. "We have reduced the water usage in the utensils area so we don’t waste too much of water,” he said.

Old settlements in Chennai, marked by congested roads and highly populated areas that have abused groundwater pumping for decades, are bearing the brunt of a double whammy—shortage of water from borewells and government-supplied water from reservoirs.

In Triplicane, a Central Chennai locality bursting at the seams with shops, bachelor mansions and crowded lanes, money cannot seem to buy water. Private water tanker owners say the mounting demand has given them the option to supply to locations close to the source of water. A tanker owner, on conditions of anonymity, said, “I have orders for the next three days. But I will service places closer to my source near Poonamallee.”

Private tankers are not obliged to service all orders like the government. A tanker load of 12000 litres that used to cost Rs 1, 400 now charges over Rs 4,000. “We cannot tap from the same source every day and look for newer options. Wherever we go there are 40 tankers waiting. This delays our deliveries and has cut our services to three deliveries a day. So we pick the shorter ones," the tanker owner said.

Residents who can afford to pay more for water rely on private tankers because the wait is just for a few hours to three days. For those who can’t afford it, they are at the mercy of the metro-water which is state-owned. “I pay a rent of Rs 15,000 month and I can’t afford to pay Rs 5000 for water. Since I don’t earn much and I have to spend on my children’s education, I have no choice but wait for the Metro tanker to deliver water,” said 48-year-old K Ramaswamy.

Dinesh, 20, a driver with the Metro tanker for two years, starts his day at 4:30 am and doesn't get done before midnight. For each load, he gets Rs 50. He does 10 trips and earns Rs 500 a day. “We don’t have off days. The work is the same for us now during the water crisis and even otherwise. The only change is that whenever we go, people are furious and abuse us for the delay in getting water. We try to explain that our job is just to deliver and we are helpless as the Metro water department assigns work to us,” said Dinesh.

The Metro Water tanker’s Valluvar Kottam branch is a busy one. The counters inside the branch are buzzing with activity. Many people who have booked tankers in advance visit the branch often to know the status of their booking. The notice displayed outside the tanker states that water is being supplied for all those who booked 9000 litres on May 11 and 6000 litres on May 6.

Despite all the government's efforts, many feel it's too little too late.

Kannan Balachandran, a resident of South Chennai said, “The government very well knows about the water scarcity. The entire delta belt itself is suffering. They can’t force Karnataka to give Cauvery water. Tamil Nadu does not have any source of water which is why we are suffering.”

Experts have found out that the reservoirs have been encroached upon gradually taking over of water bodies resulting in rainwater finding newer channels towards the sea. "Over time all these channels that are connected to these water bodies have encroached at many places. The government has not taken any efforts to clear the encroachments on the channel. As a result of it, most of the rainwater go on the streets and is directly diverted into the sea, without fully recharging these water bodies," said Jayaram Venkatesan, Convenor of Arappor Iyakkam, an organisation focussed on working towards building a 'Just and Equitable society'.

People chosen after draw of lots collect water from a community well at Eswari Nagar in Pallavaram municipality, Chennai. (Photo: PTI)

Venkatesan pointed out that the deficient monsoon rainfall in 2018 summarises the situation. He said that had the water bodies been preserved, Chennai could have adjusted to the current shortage by tapping into the reservoirs. "Another reason is that without desilting there is also silt formation, that decreases the water holding capacity of the water bodies significantly. As a result of all this, the water bodies have completely dried up," Venkatesan added.

In an RTI filed by Venkatesan, accessed by CNN News 18, it was revealed that two tmcft (one thousand million cubic feet) of silt has built upon the four reservoirs feeding Chennai. "2tmcft of silt is equivalent to 2 months of water requirement for Chennai. If they had removed this, we would have at least had additional 2 months of water that is required for Chennai," Jayaram holds that desilting cannot just help during a drought but also prevent floods. In December 2015, when Chennai received 100 cms of rain, the severity of the floods could have been brought down by water bodies ready to take the deluge.

Still, all may not be lost for Chennai. The complete drying out of reservoirs presents a rare opportunity.

Dr. S. Janakaraj, former Professor of MIDS said, "Only when the rainfall is deficient and the reservoirs are dry, desilting operations can be conducted. It can't happen when water is stored in the reservoir. This is the most suitable condition and desilting should be undertaken in a proper, scientific way and not be dug here and there."

Those who live closer to the reservoirs bear the brunt as they are not able to do their usual activities. A truant monsoon has dried up Chennai's reservoirs, making them ideal grazing ground for cattle. However, the shallow water snaking through large dry, cracked lands serve little even for the cattle.

Chembarambakkam Lake

Anand, a resident from MGR Nagar, closer to Chembarambakkam reservoir said, “We used to go to the reservoir to collect water in pots, wash clothes on the banks of the reservoir with the water there. The reservoir has been completely dry for the last two months.”

However, as the Tamil Nadu Government pursues desalination as one of the options to quench Chennai’s thirst, concerns emerge about the impact on marine life. Professor Janakaraj said desalination, while it has its advantages, it may pose risks to fish nearby the plant and endanger the livelihood of fishermen." He suggested that rejuvenation of water bodies was a far more sustainable way forward.

Interestingly, Tamil Nadu was a forerunner in rain-water harvesting: state chief minister J Jayalalithaa has mandated every home, be it an apartment block or an individual house, should have its own rainwater harvesting set up. The AIADMK Government headed by Edappadi K Palaniswami appears on a weak wicket on the water shortage, facing incisive attacks by social welfare and pressure groups like Arappor Iyakkam.

Data as of 21 June, 2019

Government officials, while maintaining that a water shortage was clearly present, said construing it as a crisis was an exaggeration. “We understand that the city has a deficit of water supply by a few hundred MLDs (million litres a day) but making it out as though there is no water in Chennai is a stretch,” said a top official at the metro water department of Chennai.

With the general public and, especially, the state opposition parties, this doesn’t cut much ice. The DMK, which just scored a point in opposing “Hindi imposition” in the National Education Policy 2019 draft released earlier, is holding protests. State ministers responsible for tackling the crisis have made statements that have only added fuel to the fire. Urban Development Minister SP Velumani said some elements were working on “manufacturing news” related to the water crisis, leading to an outrage on social media.

While the state government vows it is prepared to service till November, it appears inhabitants of the southern metropolis are in for a gruelling year.​


Produced by — Sheikh Saaliq
Lead Illustration — Mir Suhail