For Devi, a resident of Chennai’s Greames Road, the fight for water is a daily affair. With handpumps in the area fetching little to no water, Devi is forced to rely on the government’s Metrowater tankers, which comes to her locality three or four times every day. Her family, however, is allowed just six pots of water every day for all their requirements.
“This water problem comes every year. But this year it has been extreme. If there is a hand pump, people fill up their pots and go. But if water supply comes in the water tankers, only those who fight manage to get water. Those who cannot, return with empty pots,” she says.
Like Devi, residents across the city complain of water shortage. It’s been one of harshest summers in Chennai in over 70 years. As of Friday, there is 0.25% of water in the city’s four main reservoirs. The city is just days away from running out of water supply from its primary sources.
But what exactly has led to this scarcity?
Chennai relies on the northeast monsoon for the bulk of its rainfall between October and December. But in 2018, the northeast monsoon failed, with Chennai recording a deficit of 55% rainfall. Experts also say that poor water management on the part of the government has led to the present crisis.
“When adequate rainfall is there, you have to think of the next year’s reserve. If the four reservoirs are filled up, you have to use it for two years, instead of eight months or one year,” says K Sivasubramaniyan, Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies.
Chitlapakkam in Chennai’s suburbs is a glaring example of the lack of planning and initiative by the government. Sunil Jayaram, a resident and volunteer of Chitlapakkam Rising, says, “There were enough indications since 2015 that all this happened to us because we didn’t maintain a big water body next to us. The Chitlapakkam lake is a huge one, spread over 100 acres with a water-holding capacity of 55 acres. If we had desilted, maintained, stopped the sewage, and stopped the dumping of garbage in the lake, the 55 acres could hold 2,000 lakh litres of water.”
Sunil is forced to depend on private water tankers, who are charging nearly double these days. What was earlier Rs 800 now costs Rs 1500 for a 6000-litre tanker.
To tide over the crisis, sources in the Chennai Metrowater tell TNM that two desalination plants will continue to run in full capacity – that’s a total of 180 million litres per day. Water will also be sourced from Veeranam Lake, quarries and agricultural wells. In addition to this, two more desalination plants will come up by 2023, with officials hopeful that they will be able to add 650 Million Litres per Day to the city’s water needs.
Experts like Sivasubramaniyan, however, point out that desalination plants are not sustainable in the long run. Instead, the government must invest in rainwater harvesting and ensure water conservation.