Water crisis in Chennai: Ministers and officials say there is no problem even as four major reservoirs run dry

Chennai: The daily desperate wait for water, especially among lower income residents, is becoming longer and more uncertain for the 75 lakh people of Chennai. Long queues of men and women with eyes searching for the elusive water lorry are a regular sight in areas like Anakaputhur of Pammal area. "We are getting only five pots of water, that too on alternate days," said an angry Seetha, who waits in the queue for hours every day. "What should we do with that? Cook or drink or use in the restrooms? The rich people order private water tankers, but what do we do?”

Chennai requires 550 million litres per day to quench its thirst and meet other needs. However, poor rainfall has left the four major reservoirs located around the city virtually dry. According to the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewage Board data, two of the reservoirs at Sholavaram and Redhills contain water well below the required minimum storage levels, while the other two, Poondi and Chembrampakkam, have barely 21 mcft and one mcft of water respectively, which is 0.05 percent of the water the reservoirs had at this time last year.

The Madras High Court had pulled up the government on its poor water management policy and raised questions on the implementation of rain water harvesting systems. It had sought a report on removal of encroachments on the water bodies. The high court has asked the Public Works Department to file a report on this within a couple of weeks.

There is no water crisis, says minister

 Water crisis in Chennai: Ministers and officials say there is no problem even as four major reservoirs run dry

The daily desperate wait for water, especially among lower income residents, is becoming longer and more uncertain. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami blamed the media for creating this 'hype' of a water crisis. “Failure of monsoon has led to water scarcity, but things are under control, with the municipal administration and water supply minister working round the clock and handling things efficiently,” he claimed.

Strangely, an official of the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board, who doesn't want to be named, claimed that “there is no water crisis. About 900 lorries are supplying water to Chennai’s residents and they run nearly 9,400 trips every day. We are using smaller trucks of 2,000 and 3,000 litres capacity in areas with narrow roads and supply water round the clock. The desalination plants at Minjur and Nemmeli provide around 180 MLD per day. Water from agri lands in nearby districts like Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram are being used. We are also trying to purify the water from quarries in Guduvancherry and Vandalur for supply to Chennai."

Tamil Nadu Municipal Administration and water supply minister SP Velumani too claimed that there is no water crisis. “It's a normal sight to see hundreds standing for a water tanker during summer,” said Velumani. “We did not have rain for more than 190 days. Hence, there is a shortage of water, but we are handling it efficiently. Nearly 110 wells from agriculture land in Thiruvallur district have been used to extract 60 MLD of water which is being distributed among the people. The government is in the process of finding some more agriculture lands with wells so it can provide additional 8 MLD water to the city. There is no water crisis in Tamil Nadu."

But drawing water from the agriculture fields is causing unease among farmers. “The government is buying 1,000 litres of water for just Rs 2.50 per litre,” said Boopalan, a farmer from Thiruvallur. “But this is depleting our ground water, how can we raise our crops? Our entire livelihood is gone. And money for the water extracted is also not paid on time. We have pending bills for two months that the governments has to clear."

Drying up business, essential services

Goats have grazing near the Puzhal Lake, one of the main water reservoirs of Chennai. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

Goats have grazing near the Puzhal Lake, one of the main water reservoirs of Chennai. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

The acute water scarcity has hit just about every segment in the city. Hospitals are unable to function properly and surgeries are being postponed. In a government hospital that is located in Chrompet, only 15 surgeries are being done daily, as compared to 30 in normal times, said Dr Palanivel, dean of Chrompet government hospital. “We are unable to get the required amount of water, even if we pay more for private water tankers”, said the dean. “Surgeries are done based on the seriousness of the patient’s condition. The government should ensure hospitals get adequate water supply”.

Schools are declaring holidays or curtailing working days because of their inability to provide enough water to students. “We are planning to run the schools for only three days a week as we are unable to get enough for drinking and other uses of the children,” said Private Matriculation School Association secretary Nandhakumar. “The state’s chief educational officer has ordered all schools in and around Chennai to install rain water harvesting systems but we don’t have water to construct those systems."

The construction and IT segments have also been impacted. “IT companies contribute to about 25 percent of the city’s revenues,” said Vinoth, general secretary of the IT Employees Association. “But this acute water shortage has forced IT firms to close their offices and ask its employees to work from home." Construction has come to a complete halt.

Restaurants and hotels too have either shut down or curtailed use of water by its employees and guests. “Chennai has nearly 50,000 hotels and we are getting water only from private water tankers and paying a heavy price for it,” said Venkatasubbu, a hotelier and a member of Chennai Hotels Association. “But we can’t include that in the price of food items. It is a really hard time for us."

Though Chennai, in a normal year, gets annual rainfall of 1,200-1,300 mm and rainwater harvesting is mandatory for all buildings, implementation and enforcement of the law, which was amended under Section 255A of Chennai City Municipal Corporation Act, has been poor.

The two sub-sections of the amended act read as follow — 1: Every building owned or occupied by the government or a statutory body or a company or an institution owned or controlled by the government, rain water harvesting structure shall be provided by the government or by such statutory body or company or other institution, as the case may be, in such manner and within such time as may be prescribed. 2: Every owner or occupier of a building shall provide rain water harvesting structure in the building in such manner and within such period as may be prescribed.

Crisis dipped into politics

The acute water scarcity has hit just about every segment in Chennai. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

The acute water scarcity has hit just about every segment in Chennai. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

The government and the Opposition have resorted to the usual blame game. “Government machinery is extremely lethargic in handling the water crisis and is instead trying to muzzle the Opposition and media,” said MA Subramaniyam, Saidapet MLA.

The Saidapet area is one of the worst affected areas which constitutes both the rich and the poor. The middle class people and the rich are buying water from the private tanker operators, but the poor are struggling hard to find water. Many people can be seen standing in a queue in front of hand pumps or waiting for the government water tanker that comes to the slums only on alternate days. Though the DMK, the Opposition party, was distributing drinking water in such areas, the frequency of those water tankers is not regular.

“We are not trying to politicise this issue. But the government is trying to hide the truth. People are standing in long queues for a few pots of water. Hospitals can’t do surgeries; schools can’t run but the government is acting as though there is no water scarcity." Leader of Opposition in the Tamil Nadu Assembly and DMK president MK Stalin alleged that even as people are struggling to get water, “ministers are indulging water loot using water tankers with tax money”.

(Author is a Chennai-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.)

Updated Date: Jun 22, 2019 18:02:24 IST