The city of Chennai is headed towards a drought worse than 2016 this summer but its residents, according to authorities controlling water supply, remain in denial. With the water in reservoirs which the city depends on seeing a deficit of 77.37% compared to last year, experts point out that it is about time residents begin using the limited resource judiciously.
There are four lakes in the outskirts of Chennai -- Poondi, Cholavaram, Redhills and Chembarambakkam -- which supply drinking water to the city. The threat of the waterbodies drying up loomed over Chennai, even as Cyclone Gaja wreaked havoc in the delta districts. Currently, the water levels compared to 2018 in these lakes stand at a deficit of 82.46% in Poondi, 89.72% in Cholavaram, 45.44% in Redhills and 96.65% in Chembarambakam.
The Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) is currently supplying 650 MLD (Million Litres per day) of water to the city but are planning to cut the supply down by 100 MLD as the summer approaches.
Sources in the water supply board tell TNM that authorities are extremely worried about how people are going to manage the short supply of water and state that the situation is worse than it was in 2017, a year in which Tamil Nadu was touted to have witnessed the worst drought in 140 years.
"The problem this time is that the groundwater has reduced too. So, when we reduce supply, the situation will become doubly worse," says an official under the condition of anonymity. "We have 180 MLD of water from two desalination plants and we get 30 MLD of water from quarries. In addition to this, we will draw from the Veeranam lake. But we still be short and the public that is dependent on groundwater is likely to suffer," he adds.
The areas in Chennai that consume most water are middle class and upper middle-class localities that include Anna Nagar, Besant Nagar, RA Puram and the like. They use upto 120 litres of water per person every day in addition to groundwater, according to authorities. In low-income areas, due to lack of storage facilities the usage remains at close to 50 litres per day. This, they claim, will equip them to deal with lesser water supply.
So what do the people of Chennai have to do?
"An immediate solution is greywater recycling," says the Metro water official. Greywater is all water-based fluids generated in households or office buildings from streams. These do not have fecal contamination, therefore ruling out water from toilets. Sources of greywater include sinks, showers, baths, clothes washing machines or dishwashers. "Apartment complexes can set up a small system with a rapid sand filter and disinfection unit. A 1000 litre unit will cost between Rs 40,000 and Rs 80,000 but this will definitely have long term benefits. Communities have to collectively work towards water conservation," he adds.
S Janakarajan, Professor and Officiating Director at Madras Institute of Development Studies agrees that a crisis is waiting to unfold.
"And people will not be concerned till they keep getting water," he points out. "The long term solution is to have rainwater harvesting systems that allow for maximum saving. Currently, we lose 80% of rainfall. The second is for people to adopt water accounting," says the professor. "Every simple step you take - like closing the tap, not using too much water for a bath, all take you a step further towards saving more water for the future. If not, in 10 years, things will be out of hand.