Those days of lugging buckets from MGR's house

T. Ramakrishnan
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SCARCE RESOURCEWith a global population of 7 billion and rising, finding clean water is increasingly difficult. The threat to drinking water is strongest from pollution, and groundwater is overexploited. This Chennai fountain dispenses municipal water in Chintadripet, on the eve of World Water Day.— Photo: R. Ragu
SCARCE RESOURCEWith a global population of 7 billion and rising, finding clean water is increasingly difficult. The threat to drinking water is strongest from pollution, and groundwater is overexploited. This Chennai fountain dispenses municipal water in Chintadripet, on the eve of World Water Day.— Photo: R. Ragu

Shekher is no stranger to the problem of water shortage. As a school boy in the early 1980s, his routine included bringing home buckets of potable water on a bicycle from the public tap outside M.G. Ramachandran's house on Arcot Street, about two km from his home in T. Nagar. Like most Chennaiites of that period, he and his family would spent sleepless nights for weeks in arranging to fetch water from different areas. MGR's house was one of the handful reliable sources available in the city, but one had to wait there in a long queue.

The 1980s were severe. As consolation, his father would tell him that the 1960s were harsher. Chennai Metrowater, set up in 1978, provided piped water supply on alternate days in 1983 and three years at a stretch — 1987 to 1990. Public borewells had been sunk in a number of places and this source of water was used for non-consumptive purposes.

Shekher's tryst with water shortage did not end there. When he went to Delhi for higher studies, the place he lived for three years, Dev Nagar, was in the tail of the water distribution system. Water would come just for about half-an-hour every day. When he returned to Chennai, the city was on the verge of another round of water scarcity. This was late 1992. Some weeks later, Chennai Metrowater publicly announced that it would resume water supply on alternate days. Now a fully-grown youth, Shekher did not have to go up to MGR's house.

The supply through Metrowater tankers was far more organised, even though some parts of the city witnessed ‘road rokos' in demand of regular supply. Throughout 1993, the average quantity of water supplied every day was 112 million litres a day (MLD). There is nothing to show that this record of lowest supply has been broken (even though the city received less rainfall in 2003 than in 1982, the supply level was much higher: 180 MLD.)

But, this time, the spell of water scarcity was short. The 1993 northeast monsoon created a record of sorts, bringing in rainfall 50 per cent higher than normal in the State. The subsequent years saw Chennai having peace on the water front. In 1996, after 13 years of project execution, Krishna water was added as one more source for the city with the arrival of a modest quantity of water. But, Shekher was not to forget the past easily. He would wonder what would be the scenario if the monsoon failed totally. His fear became true when the northeast monsoon in 1999 failed. This time, the dry spell was to last until 2004.

In 2002 and 2003, the southwest monsoon, responsible for rains in the Krishna basin as in many other parts of the country, was disappointing. The northeast monsoon (October-December) of 2003 too failed. The city's main reservoirs had touched the lowest water levels in the preceding 54 years of recorded history. It appeared that Chennai was in for a huge problem. By then, Shekher moved out of T. Nagar and shifted to Velachery, the terminal point in the city water distribution system. For most of 2004, all the reservoirs feeding the city — Chembarampakkam, Red Hills, Cholavaram and Satyamurti Sagar in Poondi — had become cricket playgrounds.

In between, a couple of developments took place. When the AIADMK returned to power in May 2001, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa renewed her interest in the New Veeranam Project, which she had planned to undertake even in 1993, and devoted her attention to its implementation. There was political opposition and skepticism, but she was unmoved. So, in June 2004, the Veeranam tank, 230 km from Chennai, became one more source for the city.

Initially, it provided 75 MLD for some months, after which it has been constantly supplying 180 MLD. The Neyveli aquifer came in handy and water from this source was transported, for a few months, through pipelines laid for the Veeranam project before the tank's water started flowing in. Another significant move of the AIADMK government then was to pursue sea-water reverse osmosis desalination projects seriously. When the DMK was in power from 1996-2001, small-sized desalination plants were installed in some parts of the city but their source of water was brackish groundwater, not sea water.

Though the desalination plant project promoted by the AIADMK regime saw some controversies, it was awarded to a leading infrastructure private player in mid-2005 on design, build, own, operate and transfer (DBOOT) basis. This plant was commissioned in July 2010.

Shekher, by now, was no longer venturing out to fetch buckets of water. Like many persons of his economic class, he had begun purchasing packaged water for drinking. For other purposes, he used water supplied by tankers. A study by the International Water Management Institute and Sir Ratan Tata Trust in late 2003 revealed that as much as 55 MLD was sold through private tanker-lorries in the city. The charges were in the range of Rs. 50 to Rs. 60 per 1,000 litres. The study found that a net profit of Rs. 35 crore was made by the private players. Chennai Metrowater, at one stage, operated 13,000 lorry trips every day to ensure the supply of around 180 MLD.

The northeast monsoon (October-December) of 2005, in its early phases, indicated copious rainfall. Soon, the city experienced floods, which the people of Chennai celebrated like manna from the heaven. On November 1, 2005, the daily piped water supply resumed.

The city has not looked back since then. Chennai is getting water from the Krishna river as well as its own traditional sources, besides the Minjur desalination plant, which, on an average, contributes nearly 50 MLD. Shekher, given his nature, is wondering again whether the six-year-long spell of bountiful rainfall will break anytime soon.

No one knows what nature has in store. Even assuming the worst scenario — the failure of southwest and northeast monsoons — in a given year, Chennai Metrowater is better prepared to tackle the situation.

There is already one desalination plant, whose capacity is 100 MLD. Another plant of the same capacity, being installed with Central funding, will be ready this year. The Veeranam source will give 180 MLD. As groundwater sources have not been disturbed all these years, they will contribute at least 75 MLD.

A minimum of 400 MLD will be assured, Shekher's friends in Metrowater tell him. This does not include the contribution from the Krishna water source. As on date, the Kandaleru reservoir, the terminal storage point of the Krishna water supply system in Andhra Pradesh, has storage of 36 thousand million cubic feet — three times the combined capacity of the four reservoirs feeding the city. Also, the present storage in the four reservoirs is about two-thirds of their capacity. Shekher, clearly, does not have to look for sleepless nights. Not this year, at least.




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