A combination of urban planning failure and governmental blame games has created a situation where even copious amounts of rain water end up wasted— water that is precious to a parched city.

Why water-scarce Chennai gets waterlogged with the shortest spell of rainsFile image/ PTI
news Urban infrastructure Tuesday, June 25, 2019 - 18:42

The city of Chennai has been in the throes of a gripping water crisis for over four months, with rows upon rows of empty water pots becoming a common sight in the city’s streets. As the summer grew intense, the scarcity made international headlines for India’s sixth largest city was running out of water. The frustratingly lax response of the government amidst the crisis— ranging from promises that it could be managed to outright denial— added to what was already a full blown daily hardship for lakhs of people in the city. With the government finally acknowledging the crisis on Friday, the city’s skies also let up and sporadic rains were witnessed in many parts of the city. Over the weekend, rainfall measuring upto about 3.1 mm across the city was recorded, bringing cheer among residents. While rains finally reached the city after nearly 200 days, social media was soon inundated with posts of water-logging and citizens wading through water on the roads of Perumbakkam, Velachery, Saidapet and Mylapore. 

The main reservoirs around the city— Chembarambakkam, Cholavaram, Poondi and Puzhal-- have been nearly wrung-dry with a drastic drop in water levels. The rains came as a relief to the parched city but it was quickly apparent why even copious rainfall cannot save the city from water scarcity. Among the reasons are gross urban planning failure, incompetence in anticipating the challenges to the city and governmental blame games, say experts. 

Urban planning failure 

Speaking to TNM, Jayaram Venkatesan of Arappor Iyakkam, the city-based anti-corruption NGO, says, “The network of water bodies in the city were not taken into account during the creation of the First Masterplan (1976). The Second Masterplan (2008), which included it, did not implement proper channels between one water body and another.”

“Storm water drains are a complete failure in the city. The idea behind a storm water drain is that it should carry water during rains to the nearby water bodies so that there is no flood on the street. It is meant to recharge the water body. But in Chennai, it has been converted into a sewage system and connected to Buckingham canal and the Cooum. So it mixes with the sewage and then goes to the sea. Moreover, the High Court has stopped the reclassification of water bodies. But this hasn't stopped the corporation from doing so,” he points out.

The Arappor Iyakkam fought to ensure that unlike other lakes in the city which have been rendered without inlets and outlets, the Villivakkam lake receives water from the Otteri Nullah canal during rains.

Governmental corruption, blame games 

Speaking to TNM, urban planning expert and retired IAS officer MG Devasahayam alleges that petty rivalry among government department-- in a race to pocket lucrative contracts-- have lead to an environment of deep-rooted, systemic corruption.

Taking the example of the efforts to restore the Cooum River, among the most polluted water bodies in the city, Devasahayam alleges, "The water body and the banks of the Cooum River are under the control of the Public Works Department (PWD) while the water management falls under the Chennai Metrowater. The PWD is corrupt, they can never get money to restore the water body. The only agency capable of implementing it is the Chennai Metrowater but till today, it has not been handed over to them. They have been talking about restoring the Cooum since 1968.” 

He adds, “Water has a right of way and a right of storage but all this has been encroached upon in the city. There is zero urban governance. Urban planning has been reduced to the development of real estate.”

Steps for the future 

Speaking to TNM, Vishwanath Srikantaiah, a noted water expert who has worked in the sector for three decades, says that planning for the future must take into account the requisite space for rainwater to infiltrate groundwater aquifers. “We should provide at least 5 percent space for water to infiltrate into the ground. Every building should collect or recharge every drop of rain. Roads should be designed to replenish the groundwater aquifers. If we do this management, there will not be any flooding. Building bye-laws and master plans should facilitate this,” he says. 

Explaining that the city, which generates approximately 1200 MLD of waste water a day, could put this to use, Vishwanath says, “Chennai should focus on waste water recycling. It has enormous potential.” He suggests that the water generated everyday could be directed to treatment plants and then wetlands and lakes in order to be physically and ecologically treated. This would then replenish the aquifers.

Read: Urban planning in denial: Why Chennai gets unbearably flooded and what can be the solution

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