Chennai’s Water Stress: Urgent Need for Effective Water Security

 In Democracy & Governance, Energy, Water, & Conflict, TPF Analysis

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In Chennai, while the demand for water has been rising steeply with rapid urbanisation and growing population, water supply has been hit hard due to monsoon failures, over-exploitation of groundwater, heat waves and inadequate infrastructure. Following poor rainfall since 2018, all four major drinking water sources (four lakes) in the city dried up holding less than 1 percent of their capacities, aggravating the city’s water gap. The summer 2019 water crisis in Chennai has revealed the scale and magnitude of the water challenge, which can be viewed from two angles- one that is caused from a lack of safe water provisions and the other due to scarcity of available water resources.

In Tamil Nadu, over 95 percent of surface water and 80 percent of groundwater have been utilised, with the per capita availability of water merely 900 cubic meters against a national average of 2200 cubic meters. Additionally, the state is, almost entirely, dependent on rainfall to restore its water resources. Erratic monsoon, therefore, create acute water shortage and droughts in the state. Further, Chennai being a coastal city, there is a high run off rate.

Water Shortage – Man made Crisis

Of the total water available, 75 percent of the available water is utilised for agriculture, leaving very little for industrial and personal consumption. The shortage has led to many unregulated private borewells and groundwater extraction. Others have resorted to private tankers who charge exorbitantly, in the absence of alternatives. While the coping costs is only 1 percent of the total income for high income groups, it is 15 percent for middle income groups and 40-50 percent for low income groups. To level the burden, state’s interventions are indispensable and all attempts towards regulating rates have failed due to tanker lobbies.

In the absence of proper legislation, there has been an 85 percent decline of groundwater levels. Depleting groundwater level and intrusion of seawater have significantly reduced the water quality as well. Additionally, the state needs to build storage facilities and prevent water runoff, evident from the failure of at storing excessive water from 2015 flood which flowed back to the sea. The authorities have also ignored the illegal encroachment and excessive migration of people. An estimated 8,20,000 people live in slums, often without access to a consistent water supply. Poor infrastructure to retain water and low water holding capacity of soil have also affected green water within the soil that supports food and biomass production.

The water shortage have spilled over to other dimensions as well. The unbalanced emphasis on the supply side issues has created water rage and incidents of local arguments over conservation methods, utilisation patterns, etc. Small businesses, schools, restaurants and others have evolved their own methods to tackle the crisis. Corporates encouraged work from home, many skipped daily wages waiting for water delivery and Chennai Metro temporarily stopped air conditioning in non-peak hours. The water disruptions also affected production, increased input costs and reduced investments in the city.

Need for Active State Intervention

Since water is a state subject, its management remains the responsibility of state government. The evident and growing water scarcity immediately demanded policy interventions and action programmes from the Tamil Nadu government. To tackle the high prices charged by tankers, the Municipal Administration hired water tankers for supplying water to the public and demanded that people refuse services of those charging steep rates. However, the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board was delivering 500 million litres, less than half of the city’s needs. In such a scenario, authorities should instead actively regulate the prices and penalise defaulters.

Water Supply Scheme in Chennai has been approved under JNNURM for improving and strengthening water supply within the city. However, leak detection and rectification is only part of Phase 6 of the scheme. This needs to be prioritised to prevent water wastage. Further, proposal to extend basic amenities to unserved areas under the scheme is still pending. To stop the complete dependence on rainwater, the administration has taken up the construction of a third desalination plant, financed through a KFW loan and AMRUT funds. A Request for Interest has also been issued for setting up three small scale Seawater Reverse Osmosis desalination plants of 10MLD each. However, many argue that desalination should be the last resort since it is expensive, energy intensive and environmentally damaging. Instead, the government should restore and rejuvenate water bodies in the city (currently there are over 100 such bodies each ranging between 2-50 acres), currently polluted with untreated waste, plastic and water hyacinths. There should also be regulations in place to prevent encroachment and pollution of water boundaries by humans.

To have a sustainable system, rainwater harvesting was made mandatory since 2003, requiring buildings to install rooftop water catchment system and collect rainwater. However, poor implementation and maintenance have proved this measure ineffective. Local and state buildings should lead in rainwater harvesting. Following this, there should be regular checks and local bodies should provide assistance in maintaining these structures. The government is also engaging with NGOs and experts to desilt rivers to improve storage capacity in time for North East monsoons. While the measure is not an immediate fix, it is a long term measure. Though CMWSSB has pushed for desilting, many suggested plans are yet to be approved by the Water Resources Department. Even approved projects are prolonged and poorly managed. For instance, 1.93 lakhs cubic metres of silt are yet to be cleared in Porur lake, the process is yet to begin at Cholavaram lake, etc.

On a careful observation, it can be established that most efforts currently employed address supply side issues like desalination, mismanagement, restoring water sources, etc. While supply oriented approaches are necessary, it is dependent on availability of water that is largely a product of nature and climate. The demand for water, however, is largely dependent on humans, directly impacted by the population size, industrial use patterns, water efficiency, etc. Hence, there is a need to equally focus on demand management measures, to formulate proper policies for water security.

TN government has rejected the pricing of agricultural electricity consumption stating that it will burden the farmers and raise food prices. However, the state should actively try to reduce water consumption through irrigation, by measures like fixed timing for supply of power (used to pump groundwater), training farmers on water conservation methods, encouraging efficient irrigation techniques(drip irrigation or spray irrigation instead of flood irrigation), etc.

Data intensive Analysis should guide Effective Policy Formulation and Implementation

With wide spread experience of water scarcity and data projecting a situation normalising drought, it is the right time to adopt water conservation methods and push for change to limited water use lifestyle. Cape Town, that faced a similar situation, successfully implemented behavioural nudges to reduce water use. Most effective nudges included offering conservation feedback to users on their performance in relation to neighbours, and creating Water Maps that highlighted areas compliant with the targets. Further, reuse of water should be encouraged for landscaping, flushing toilets, etc.

More importantly, to develop ideal policies and evolve schemes, there is a need for water accounting to track and understand the extent of water scarcity, check inter basin river transfers for better negotiations and make trade-offs with other states, improve preparedness for emergencies, etc. There should also be public water audits on institutions, laws, public and private usages, etc for transparency and accountability.

Currently, water is managed by multiple agencies – one to handle encroachment, one for lake rejuvenation, another for pollution control, and so on- with overlapping responsibilities and little coordination between them. For responsible and accountable water governance, these bodies should be under an integrated agency. Overall, the demand side measures should equally be managed by the state. Towards this, the model of city’s development should be altered to distribute migration across the state, especially to areas that receive higher annual rainfall and have abundant water sources. In addition to reducing the water stress faced by the city, it will hinder the overcrowding in Chennai’s urban space and bring equitable development across the state.

Renuka Paul is a Research Analyst with ‘The Peninsula Foundation’.

Photo by Adhithya Srinivasan on Unsplash

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