Mission Paani: In parched Chennai, residents shell out fortune for water as crisis brings city to its knees

Chennai has been grappling with an acute water crisis over the past four months. The southern metropolis is facing a daily water deficit of at least 200 million litres, and the four reservoirs supplying to the city have run dry. The rich haven’t been spared either, but their suffering is nothing compared to the working class.

Rampant unplanned development, deficient monsoon last year coupled with inadequate urban planning has brought Chennai to its knees.

In the small hours, bicycles and push carts can be seen lugging water in jerricans, and by 7 am government and private tankers are busy supplying water to neighbourhoods across the city.

 Mission Paani: In parched Chennai, residents shell out fortune for water as crisis brings city to its knees

People rush to fill their vessels from a water tanker following acute water shortage, in Chennai. PTI

At 4.30 am — at least an hour and 15 minutes before daybreak — it’s already rush hour in KK Nagar, a working class neighbourhood in Chennai. Local residents can be seen jostling for space in a serpentine queue leading up to a water tanker. KK Nagar’s 300-odd families may go without a drop of water should they fail to stand in the queue. The state government-run facility is available every alternative day, and the timing of the supply is also erratic.

Kesar Basha, a KK Nagar resident, describes his water woes.

“One person has to carry minimum seven pots of water. Most days, a section of the neighbourhood goes without water because the supply isn’t enough for all of us. I’m incurring severe financial loss because I haven’t been able to go to work on time. The state government needs to take immediate action to resolve the crisis," he says.

Zahura Begum, a resident of Royapettah, too, blames the state government for their pitiable state of affairs.

"The tankers are supplying water at an exorbitant price. We are spending Rs 300 a month on our water bills. Our monthly expenses on water have gone up so much that we can no longer afford two square meals a day," she says.

Chennai’s water crisis is playing out in the middle class neighbourhood of T Nagar as well, albeit on a different scale. The arrival of a private tanker, carrying 12,000 litres of water, to T Nagar is greeted with relief. The state government-run tankers arrive rarely once in 10 days, but the cost is far cheaper at around Rs 800 compared to private ones that charge around Rs 5,000. At T Nagar, the availability of water for daily life may not still be a struggle, but a severe impact is being felt during functions and special occasions.

B Chandrashekar, a resident of T Nagar, says: “Water is our first priority. My son is getting married this week, and I’ve been flooded by calls from my relatives, whether there would be enough water or not."

Water, or the lack of it, has proven to be the great leveller in Chennai. The tony Boat Club Avenue is lined up with private tankers every morning. Local residents — many of the city’s wealthiest industrialists — fork out as much as Rs 12,000 per private tanker. The rich may be tiding over the crisis, but its tell-take signs are hard to miss.

P Rajavel, who drives a private tanker that supplies water to Boat Club Avenue, says people like him are “at the receiving end because it’s humanly impossible to deliver 24,000 litres on time. We are often roughed up by angry locals, if we fail to meet the delivery deadline".

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Chennai, a port city and an industrial and information technology hub, relies mostly on surface water as rain-fed water bodies are its lifeline. But, this summer all its four reservoirs have run dry.

To make matters worse, the Chembarambakkam reservoir has only 1 million cubic feet of water, or 0.027 per cent of its normal storage capacity. Experts say de-silting of the four reservoirs is the need of the hour.

Jayaram Venkatesan, a social activist and convener of Arappor Iyakkam, a people's movement that works towards building a just and equitable society, says, “Reservoirs have run dry because of rampant encroachment. Consequently, when it rains, the maximum amount of water doesn't flow into these water bodies, but spills on the streets and is directly diverted into the sea.

In parched Chennai, some residents are putting up a brave fight. They have turned to rainwater harvesting with water canals on terraces and along boundary walls of their apartment blocks. These channelise rainwater to local wells, which helps recharge the groundwater. Their innovative bid has ensured that many of them aren’t dependent on water tankers for their daily chores.

Senthilvel, a resident of Abhiramapuram, says, “Rainwater harvesting is the key for our sustenance during summer."

V Pitchumani, a resident of Alwarpet, agrees. "Our housing society isn’t dependent on water tankers. We use ground water in all the 24 flats, and have requested tenants and owners not to waste water and recycle it."

But, truth be told, there has been a massive depletion of ground water levels in Chennai because of deficient monsoon last year and also an excessive dependence on deep bore wells that have accentuated the crisis.

Monsoon hits Chennai only in October. Hence, the crisis is likely to prolong for another few months. The state government is set to unveil a third de-siltation plant, and is tapping new farm wells — theses measures may be too little and too less for a parched Chennai as it expectantly waits for the monsoon.

Updated Date: Jul 08, 2019 20:28:33 IST