Things to do to avoid another water crisis

The Chennai water problem must result not in fire-fighting strategies but in systematised solutions

June 29, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

Chennai has been reeling under its worst water crisis in decades with its four main reservoirs (Sholavaram, Chembarambakkam, Poondi and Red Hills) nearly empty. The city has not had rain in nearly 200 days; only over the past few days has the city has seen light rainfall. Groundwater too has been over extracted. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister has announced that 10 MLD (million litres a day) of water will be transported to the city for the next six months from Jolarpettai, Vellore district. The Tamil Nadu government has also accepted Kerala’s offer to provide water.

At the political level, rainwater harvesting (RWH) was initiated in 2000 at Sathyamurthy Bhavan. Subsequently the government under J. Jayalalithaa mandated RWH in Tamil Nadu, from 2003 onwards. This meant that building approval for new apartments and dwellings were not to be granted by the Chennai City Corporation unless the building plan included a RWH component. The order also mandated that all existing buildings in Tamil Nadu install RWH structures.

Sixteen years later, we are back to square one. An audit by the non-governmental organisation Rain Centre has shown that most government buildings in Chennai do not have a functioning RWH structure; these include several police stations and municipality buildings. Now, the Greater Corporation of Chennai has ordered the inspection of RWH structures, much after the crisis.


The issue with any crisis in India is the fire-fighting strategy that we adopt in response as opposed to systematised solutions. These stop-gap arrangements are soon forgotten when things temporarily go back to normal instead of making an attempt to deeply ingrain these practices in the system. This level of action, especially during the floods, is usually undertaken at the level of the National Disaster Management Authority and the National Disaster Response Force. Local follow-up measures that are necessary to sustain results are ignored. During the floods in Chennai in December 2015, the encroachment of wetlands was widely cited as a key issue. Vanishing catchment areas had resulted in floods. Three-and-a-half years later, no formal mechanism has been put in place to check whether wetlands are being desilted and whether we can avoid a similar flood-like situation again.

Need for water governance

According to a recent NITI Aayog report, 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020 if usage continues at the current rate. Water governance in cities across India has been ad hoc. Learning their lessons from the Chennai crisis, other metropolitan cities should now set up urban water planning and management boards, a permanent body similar to urban development authorities, that regulate the supply, demand and maintenance of water services and structures.


On the supply side, this authority should monitor and regulate groundwater in Chennai. Water supply by private tankers must also be regulated with pricing for their services having reached exorbitant levels. This year, a tanker of approximately 12,000 litres cost ₹6,000 in several places, almost seven times the cost of water supplied by Chennai Metro Water. Last year, the same amount of water cost ₹2,000. Additional desalination plants should also be commissioned as this water can result in water prices reaching to below 6 paise a litre. Experts are of the opinion that the beds of existing lakes can be deepened for greater water storage and better water percolation. Desalinated water is less expensive than water supplied by private tankers. However, since Chennai Metro Water charges a flat rate for use of this water, there is no incentive for judicious use.

Thus, on the demand side of things, Metro Water and groundwater use should be measured and priced progressively, similar to the electricity tariff, where the quantity of use determines the price. The board can practise differential pricing and cross-subsidise those households with a lower per capita income use of water. For this to be implemented effectively, water meters are a must.


Stakeholder coordination

The urban water management board should also oversee the desilting of lakes in the city on a regular basis. The management of lakes comes under the Public Works Department, which works in isolation from Chennai Metro Water. This lack of coordination leads to a water policy that operates in silos. The board must also have regulatory powers to monitor the maintenance of RWH structures at homes and in offices. In existing RWH structures, pipes are either broken or clogged, filtration equipment is not cleaned, bore pits have too much silt and drains are poorly maintained.

The body also needs to work in coordination with governments on granting approvals to new mass working spaces. Water scarcity has resulted in the IT corridor in Chennai suffering, with most companies even asking employees to work from home. The myopic policies of the government in providing incentives to the IT corridor without looking at their water-use necessities and asking them to make provisions for this has cost them dearly. This is in contrast to the manufacturing sector around the Sriperumbudur-Oragadam belt, where a number of companies and large manufacturing units have been able to maintain production due to efficient water management practices. For example, in one unit, there is a rainwater harvesting pond and all buildings inside the complex are equipped with facilities for artificial ground water recharge.

The scarcity of essential resources not only leads to economic losses but also social unrest; an extreme case in Chennai resulted in a woman being attacked over water troubles. We must also learn from the experiences of other cities across the world such as Cape Town, South Africa, where water saving is being driven through the concepts such as Day Zero, thus prompting better and more efficient use of water. A sustainable governance solution to this problem along with public participation is essential to ensure that our future generations do not suffer as a result of our failures.


‘Americai’ V. Narayanan is a Tamil Nadu Congress spokesperson. Kavya Narayanan is a commerce graduate pursuing entrepreneurship

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