Sixty-seven-year-old Shanti Balachander, a resident of Chennai, has multiple alarms set on her basic Nokia phone. Every couple of hours as the phone breaks into an electronic rhythm, she goes to the backyard of her independent house and futilely moves the hand pump up and down. On Sunday, it was at around 6pm when her efforts finally bore fruit and water gushed into the buckets she had already kept ready.
The homemaker from Adyar repeats this process every day, as there is no information from Chennai Metrowater authorities as to when or at what time she will receive water.
"I've noticed a pattern now. It comes every alternate day, if we are lucky. But not knowing what time it will come has really made life difficult," she laments.
Shanti is not the only one facing the brunt of the worst drought Tamil Nadu has seen in over 140 years. A city that was receiving 830 million litres of water a day (MLD), has now been left reeling with a supply of a mere 470 MLD. Metrowater authorities, when questioned about the severe shortage, threw their hands up and blamed the lack of monsoon rains.
"We have zero inflow of water currently," a Metrowater offical told The News Minute (TNM). "Reservoirs are near empty, lakes have dried up and Karnataka is refusing to part with water from the Cauvery. Considering this, we just about manage to give one to two hours of water supply to areas every day," he claims.
While most residents who spoke to TNM, dismissed the claim that they were supplied water every day, they did agree that the lack of monsoon had taken its toll.
Both the South West and North-East clouds failed Tamil Nadu in 2016. This meant that the state kept drawing water from its reservoirs even while there was no inflow. These shocking numbers provided by the Metrowater website show you the dire situation facing Chennai. The four reservoirs together - Poondi , Cholavaram, Red Hills and Chembarambakkam have about 89 mcft of water left. The total capacity of these reservoirs is 11,057 mcft.
The 470 MLD that Metrowater claims to provide, now comes from quarries, out of agricultural wells and desalination plants.
Water from quarries
A project worth Rs.13.63 crore was mooted by the Chennai Metrowater Supply and Sewage Board (CMWSSB) to process water from quarries in Kancheepuram to ensure supply for a water starved Chennai. After several rounds of tests and analysis, it was decided that about 30 MLD of water will be extracted using this method.
According to reports, 22 quarries located at Sikkarayapuram near Mangadu were taken up for feasibility studies. The water is being treated at the Chembarambakkam water treatment plant and then supplied.
Environmentalists have said that this is not advisable but agree that the city is left with few options.
For the second time in two years, Chennai Metrowater has turned to agricultural wells in Tiruvallur district to meet the requirement for water in the state's capital.
About 300 agricultural wells have been hired to extract close to 130 MLD of water. Unlike earlier years, the water agency has put in place a pipeline network to collect water from the well fields, a Metrowater official told TNM. This is then transported to a water treatment plant in Red Hills.
But these methods can hardly be described as sustainable. According to ToI, the groundwater levels in Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur has fallen nearly 6 metres below the ground level. In addition to the civic body's extraction, unlicensed use of groundwater by private players is reportedly affecting the water table as well. Recent data reportedly shows that groundwater can be reached at a depth of 5.9m at Tiruvallur and 5.6m at Kancheepuram.
In fact, reports suggest that this could be worst drop in groundwater levels that the state has seen in eight years.
The city receives 200 MLD of water from two desalination plants in Nemmeli and Minjur and efforts are currently underway to ensure the setting up of a third plant which will provide 150 MLD of water. "We need another plant and the proposal will soon reach the tender level," says a Metrowater official.
The indefinite wait
But the lack of inflow, not only means a shortage of water supply to residences, it also means an indefinite wait. With groundwater levels dropping, the city's residents have been forced to wait longer for their quota of water.
In areas where pipelines can't carry water, tankers dispatched by Metrowater decide when residents sleep.
Forty-year-old Dhanalakshmi, a resident of Tent sector in KK Nagar claims to stay awake beyond 11 pm every day waiting for the water tanker. "They come once a week but we don't know when. They come only after 11pm and we are all up till midnight filling water in buckets. It is really a difficult situation," she says.
For the city's poorer neighbourhoods which do not have adequate access to water, Metrowater claims to be using tankers for supply. According to Times of India, Metrowater has increased supply by 40% for these areas. This means that residents who use its paid dial-in service have to wait longer than the usual one week to get their tankers.
The only people possibly celebrating through this drought are private tanker operators who reportedly charge about 50% more than usual to deliver water.
The Cauvery dispute
On Sunday, angry farmers in Karnataka blocked the Bengaluru-Mysuru Highway at Gajalagere and Ilavala villages for over two hours, throwing traffic out of gear.
The protestors accused the Karnataka government and the Cauvery Neeravari Nigama Limited of neglecting Karnataka farmers and supplying surplus water to Tamil Nadu, at a time when their state was reeling under a severe drought.
Cauvery Neeravari Nigam Limited executive engineer K Basavaraje Gowda told TNM that 2,000 cusecs of water had been released from the dam on Sunday, while 3,000 cusecs were released on the night of June 29.
This 'information' apparently angered the farmers, who have traditionally opposed the release of water to Tamil Nadu.
Metrowater officials however sound surprised by this development. "We have got no water at all from that state," says one official. "We did not expect to receive any water from Cauvery due to the ongoing dispute. But if we received the 180 MLD that we wanted, it would have really helped increase water levels of the Mettur dam," he adds.
By next year, Metrowater is hoping to hold awareness campaigns and will be asking residents to conserve more water. "We need to work on ensuring that we save what water we can when it rains this time," says the official.
But when asked what what could be done to tackle the current situation, he expressed helplessness with his hands pointing towards the sky. "We can continue to provide this 470 MLD of water. But anything more than that, God will have to provide us with rain," said the official.