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South India's Drought Part 2: Chennai slum dwellers forced to beg for water, authorities remain helpless

Editor's note: Firstpost will cover various aspects of the near-calamitous situation in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana over the next eight days. This is the second article from a nine-part series of ground reports on the ongoing water crisis in south India. In this piece the author writes about how Chennai's slums are struggling to meet their water requirements. 

Stella Karunakaran, 23, lives in a slum in Pallavan Nagar in the heart of Chennai. The heart it might be, but water does not reach them. At least twice a week, she and her neighbours, are forced to go the nearby middle class areas to beg for water. “We go to residences who buy water from tankers. Some women feel sad for us and give two pots of water for free, but some charge us Rs 2 per pot. With no other option, we buy water from them,” she said. Karunakaran works in a hardware shop in Parry’s Corner and makes Rs 300 a day. On average, every week she spends Rs 40 just on water. “In case we miss buying this water, that means we have to take the day off and go in search of water, which means a loss of an entire day’s pay,” she said.

Residents of slums in Central Chennai are the worst hit. “They have installed water taps in every street but even air doesn’t come out of them,” said R Vijayalakshmi, 40, who lives in a slum in Sathyavani Muthu Nagar close to the Chennai Central Railway station. “This has been the situation for the past one month. Earlier, even though the output was less, we were able to get some water. Now, we have to struggle a lot to get water,” she added. She too, like Karunakaran, goes to nearby residences and begs for one or two pots of water.

Photo courtesy: Anand Kumar

Residents of slums in Central Chennai are the worst hit. Photo courtesy: Anand Kumar

Many residents of the sprawling slums of Chennai are daily wage labourers who cannot afford to miss out on a day’s work. Like Murugaiyyan Lakshmanan, 55, who lives in MKB Nagar, Vyasarpadi in north Chennai. “Due to the shortage of water, we take bath only once in two days,” he told Firstpost. “There is no water in the taps. Tankers supply water. These used to come everyday but now the tanker comes only once in four days. Mostly it comes at midnight. Sometimes it comes when all of us have gone to work. No one knows when the tanker will come. We cannot wait for the tankers because we are daily wage labourers. If we want food we should go without water and if we want water we should without food,” he said.

Floods in 2015, Drought in 2017

In the deluge of December 2015, south Chennai’s slums were the hardest hit. But the flood brought with it a bounty too – groundwater was recharged and the water table in most of Chennai and surrounding regions climbed by 2-3 metres. Water bodies around Chennai were brimming around this time last year because of the floods. A year later, the city is parched and desperate for water.

The drinking water requirement for one day in Chennai is approximately 850 million litres, but due to the water crisis, the Metro Water Board has reduced the output by half. Although this has affected residents throughout the city, the worst hit are those in the slums who do not get water supplied through the legal pipelines. The women of these slums are out on the streets searching for water with their empty pots.

What is worse is that no one knows who to turn to for help. Due to the postponement of the local body polls, temporary officers have been put in place. The previous ward councillors and local leaders have no teeth to bring water or governance to these slum dwellers. “Last year, due to excess rains we were surrounded by water and suffered due to it, now we do not even have drinking water. Earlier, if there was a shortage we used to take our empty pots and stage a protest in front of the local councillor’s residence until he got us a water tanker, but now the corporation councillor’s post is vacant, so whom do we approach to address our woes,” asked Muthu Chelvi of Kannagi Nagar.

Photo courtesy: Anand Kumar

Most slum dwellers have to depend on water tankers as the taps have gone dry. Photo courtesy: Anand Kumar

Helpless Authorities

Firstpost approached senior officials of the city’s Metro Water Board to find out what their plans are to address the issues of the slum dwellers. “The water level in the five most important water bodies in Chennai has drastically reduced,” said A Neelakandan, public relations manager of the board. “We have around 150 tmc-feet of water in total at the moment. So we have reduced the supply of water to the city. The city needs 830 million litres of water a day (mld) but we are able to supply only 550 mld. Since there is a shortage we are asking people to use less water and also we are taking measures to continue to supply this 550 mld in the days to come,” he said.

Neelakandan also explained why water taps in the slums are not working. “Since the output of water is less, the pressure in the taps are less that's why they are not working. So we have decided to increase the number of tankers supplying water. We have made arrangement for 250 more tankers. Once the number of tankers supplying water increases, the supply will also become better.”

Senior officials at the Chennai Metro Water Board said that other planned projects to bring in more water had not worked out. “Chennai should have got 12 tmc-feet of water from Andhra Pradesh but we got only 2 tmc-feet. The lifeline of Chennai’s water bodies have nearly come to an end. Water that is available in 31 (mining) quarries have been tested and 21 of them were found to have potable water. But, the plans to transport this water from these quarries to Chembarambakkam water treatment plant have just not taken off,” said an official who requested anonymity.

Agreements have also been signed to get water from 300 agricultural wells from Tiruvallur district and water is being supplied to Chennai city from them. Water coming out of the Neyveli Thermal Power Plant is being sent via the Veeranam pipeline that has been laid and is being supplied to Chennai. But all this amounts to just 30 mld which is a paltry amount in the present scenario.

“In the short term, whenever you implement a big project, a sewage treatment plant needs to be set up alongside,” said S Janakarajan, water resources expert based in Chennai. “In the medium term, we need to rejuvenate lakes in our local areas as this will help to recharge ground water as well as keep a buffer of surface water in place. If we ensure these things, we can manage water even if the monsoons fail for 2-3 years in a row,” he said.

Part 1: Five states face severe water crisis made worse by the onset of summer
Part 3: Parched lands in Nagapattinam lead to distress migration
Part 4: Water crisis in Tamil Nadu is a manifestation of climate change, say experts
Part 5: As Karnataka reels under severe water crisis, residents brace unofficial rationing

Updated Date: May 02, 2017 14:22 PM

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