Chennai water crisis: Citizens' Day Zero experiences impacted by locality, income and consumption

  • What is puzzling is the sheer variety of crisis experiences — some are unaffected, while others have seen lives completely disrupted.

  • This diversity acts as an impediment to meaningful action — for every person protesting with empty pots, there is someone completely untouched.

  • To understand this diversity of experience, it’s useful to think of the crisis along three dimensions: geographic, economic, and quantity consumed.

This is the first in a four-part series on the Chennai water crisis. Read more from the series here.

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Apprehension was my primary emotion when I landed in Chennai on the night of 18 June 2019,  for the BBC declared that, Chennai — India’s sixth largest city — had pretty much run out water.

Veetila thanni irrukka (Is there water in the house)?” I asked my driver.

Mmm. Irrukku (Yes, there is),” was his reply.

Unga veetila thanni varuda (Is water coming at your house)?” I asked again.

Ippothaikku varudu (For now, yes),” he replied.

Hmmm. Was it really a crisis?

But then he added, “My daughter has been asked to take four bottles of water to school. Her water bottles weigh more than her books. Her school has run out of water.”

Okay. Maybe it was a crisis.

The next morning, I stared at the ever-so-slightly brown bathing water in the bucket. Not the most cheering of sights. As the morning unfolded, Chennai appeared to be running as always, on the surface. The traffic was high near Madhya Kailash, and the trees in Mylapore, Alwarpet, RA Puram, Adyar looked as luscious as ever. But under the surface, was a hydrological crisis brewing?

What is puzzling is the sheer variety of crisis experiences — some are unaffected, while others have seen lives completely disrupted. This diversity acts as an impediment to meaningful action — for every person protesting with empty pots, there is someone completely untouched. To understand this diversity of experience, it’s useful to think of the crisis along three dimensions: geographic, economic, and quantity consumed.

Geography

A couple of women who stayed at Teynampet said they had no running water.

“The lorry comes at all hours — there is no fixed time. We come to work. If it comes at night, we can collect it and store it, but if it comes in the day, we can’t do it. In that case, we use the hand pump at night. It takes about 10 minutes to fill a thavalai (a small pot holding about 10 litres) using a hand pump. Sometimes this water is not so good for drinking, or not enough. If we need more water, we buy.”

How much did that cost?

“It varies. About one rupee per thavalai.”

Not bad. That’s about 10 paise per litre — a lot cheaper than the 30 paise to 1 rupee per litre paid by many residents in Madurai as per the survey we were doing at Sundaram Climate Institute. The water, however, had a steeper, intangible cost — the women lost more than an hour of sleep/leisure time per day to collect the water — either in jostling for space in front of the tanker, or in waiting for the hand pump to load up their water. Lost sleep/foregone leisure translates to lost productivity.

“There is so little water that I can wash only one piece of clothing at a time,” said one woman. The women saved the water from washing dishes and bathing to use for flushing.

 Chennai water crisis: Citizens Day Zero experiences impacted by locality, income and consumption

The diversity of experiences related to the Chennai water crisis acts as an impediment to meaningful action — for every person protesting with empty pots, there is someone completely untouched. REUTERS

Some central neighbourhoods of Chennai were bone dry, with water almost the only thing on people’s minds, tongues and pockets.

Thanni irrukka (Do you have water)?” was a great conversation-starter, where shared misery made friends of strangers.

Thanniye varalai (There is no water coming),” said a woman who works as a maid in an apartment complex. “We have to go at night to a nearby location to pay Rs. 100 for about 150 litres. At that price, water hurts.

Not everyone was hurting.

The housekeeping manager at the hotel had a different story to tell. She had water because the bore in her house was still working. She lived in Mangadu, which is close to Lake Chembarambakkam, a key source of water for Chennai. Chennai’s lakes might be running dry, but they continued to replenish groundwater levels in their surrounding area. This was a repetitive pattern from most people I spoke to — people living in a not-too-crowded neighbourhood near a water body still had access to some groundwater, for now.

For instance, one gentleman living near Lake Porur got only a small quantity of muddy water, even though he had deepened his bore twice. “I used to see the lake full years ago, now they play cricket on it”.

That helps explain why many around the lake buy water for some part of their needs. Dry lakes have their limits, it seems. Groundwater is almost like a memoir of a waterbody — its quantity below reflects the health above. As neighbourhoods swallow lakes, water resilience disappears.

Economics

Another important dimension is the economic strata of the residents.

At one end, the wealthy and the somewhat wealthy are weathering the drought slightly better. Neighbourhoods with low(er) population density, with plenty of green cover to allow water to percolate below — often signs of wealthy neighbourhoods — aren’t faring so badly in the crisis. In their lives, water is peripheral. Others deepened their bores or bought water, and while the cost had gone up, it did not pinch — yet.

In the middle are those whose homes or workplaces had run out of groundwater, perhaps the neighbourhood was overcrowded or had large bulk users. Or perhaps, they had no tank or water body nearby. This group was dependent on tanker water, which made their lives slightly more precarious and anxious — “When will the tanker come?” Water was important but not yet central.

But for the poor, dependent on capricious tankers and increasingly irregular municipal water, personal life revolved around collecting and eking out water. Some neighbourhoods had exhausted their ground water reserves and had no municipal supply — they were in a worse version of Day Zero than Cape Town, which only had rationed municipal supply. Water was the key (the only?) issue in their lives.

[Note: While there is a political element to the tanker economy, for the purposes of the series, it is not central to the narrative, and hence is not delved into for now.]

Quantity

The third dimension of use was quantity (and timing) of use. Many schools cannot provide water for their children — to drink, or for the toilets. Some are beginning to shut — either fully or partially — to cope. Corporates — especially those in Day Zero neighbourhoods — are cutting down on water use by shifting to disposable cutlery, or asking employees to work from home. Hotels and builders are being hard hit — because they need lots of water, in a predictable fashion. Bulk users — such as hotels, builders, IT companies — have developed their business model over decades of assuming low-cost, plentiful groundwater. This assumption is being challenged.

The challenges come in two hues — uncertainty (when and whether the tanker will come) and cost (at what price).

“We are completely at the mercy of the tanker guys. We have to make a call every evening on whether to release rooms for booking based on if the tanker has promised to come in later that night. Else, we have to take a hit on the occupancy. And prices for the tanker water have doubled, and the quality is not great, so we get a lot of rejects [sic]. Yes, we use banana leaves to save on washing water, but those leaves each cost a rupee. All of this hits the bottom line, leaving a longer term question on economic sustainability”, says Hari Govind, director of the iconic Maris Hotel in Chennai.

There is a silver lining. Many hotels — where guests are used to enjoying languid, lavish showers — are finding that the going is unprofitable in a “water-has-a-price” scenario. Some are coping — waterless urinals in staff bathrooms, sensor-filled taps in public washbasins, a fixture that increases air mixing with water in hand showers in the toilets, finger bowls in restaurants, fewer towels and sheets per guest, banana leaves to reduce plate washing — the list of innovations goes on. Once water has a price, innovations and processes come fast and thick to save it.

Meanwhile, builders are suffering too. The staff at site must be housed and watered. This is proving to be an expensive, and for some, an impossible proposition. But what really hurts, says Ananth Vummidi, managing director, BBCL, a real estate developer, is the lack of predictability.

“In a project, I have to decide whether or not to pour the concrete. Once I’m laying a roof, I need to water the concrete. If I don’t have water, the quality of the entire construction suffers. This kills the project.”

When and whether to run — that is the definition of an existential question. And one that bulk users of water in Chennai are asking themselves every day.

Why did we come to this sorry mess? That’s where we go to next.

The writer is the founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, cleantech angel investor and author of The Climate Solution — India's Climate Crisis and What We Can Do About It published by Hachette. Follow her work on her website; on Twitter; or write to her at cc@climaction.net.

Updated Date: Jul 03, 2019 10:27:29 IST