Chennai’s Water Struggles

By Lucy Gibson

Water is key to life. Cities and towns were formed because of access to it and we humans cannot live without it.

But India is running out of water.

As of June 2019, the Central Water Commission reported that 65% of India’s reservoirs were dry. About 40 percent of India’s population, including 21 cities will have no access to drinking water by 2030 according to a report by thinktank NITI Aayog. One of which is Chennai, home to over 10 million people.

Chennai has struggled with water for years. Either there’s not enough rain, or there’s way too much. But the problem is not just one of nature’s quirks. Rapid urbanisation has swallowed up lakes and fields. Land is too expensive, apparently, to be left alone.

Between 1980 and 2010, heavy construction in the city meant that area covered by buildings increased from 47 to 402km2 while wetland areas declined from 186 to 71.5km2. The IT Corridor (a road which houses a large number of IT companies in the city), for example, was built on  Pallikaranai marshlands and the area immediately upstream of Chembarambakkam (the city’s largest drinking water tank) converted into an automotive special economic zone (SEZ).

Satellite surveys reveal what has become of Chennai’s main rain-fed reservoir Lake Puzhal. What resembled a dark blue ink-stain in 2018, was, a year later a small grey shadow of its former self.

Puzhal reservoir in Chennai, India before the drought and in its current state. Source: Independent

In 2019, Chembarambakkam Lake also ran dry; it had never dried up fully in the last 25 years. During the droughts, Chembarambakkam Lake was a cracked, windswept mud flat. The massive pipe that was supposed to carry water into the city was empty. As mentioned, the area immediately upstream of Chembarambakkam converted into an automotive SEZ. The factories use rain and groundwater for cooling machinery, washing vehicles, and mixing with paint. Water that would otherwise flow into the reservoir.

With reservoirs parched, water must be found from somewhere. Chennai’s richer residents and businesses had water trucked in from nearby states. But anyone else, those who could not afford these deliveries were forced to find, and wait with buckets, for rationed amounts from state water trucks.

Women use a hand-pump to collect water at an apartment complex whose buildings are not connected to a central water supply in the OMR district of Chennai. Source: New York Times.

And climate change is coming into play.

11 of the warmest years on record, since record-keeping began in 1901, have all occurred since 2004. Maximum temperatures have on average gone up by 1.3 degrees Celsius since 1950. With this, the frequency of heatwaves is increasing, and monsoon rains delayed, leaving millions of people without water. Environment experts note that Chennai is an example of how a situation, exacerbated by climate change, can morph into a climate emergency. A crisis that is becoming more and more frequent in today’s megacities.

Climate change is happening, there is no doubt about that. But so is mismanagement; all across the world. We cannot hide from this.

Chennai was blessed with beautiful reservoirs, lakes, and ponds. But they have been encroached by urbanisation and clogged up by silt.  The city’s watershed areas have been neglected. Reservoirs need regular desilting and more storage areas (making use of existing ponds and tanks) need to be established. Unchecked urban growth, a lack of reservoir maintenance, and overextraction of groundwater by public authorities and private landowners through bore wells. 

Water catchment areas are vanishing, and regular maintenance is needed. 

With reservoirs running dry, and huge amount of money being spent of scooping water from the sea and processing it through desalination plants, could rainwater harvesting be part of the answer?

Chennai gets most of its water each year from the monsoon rains; an average of 54 days of rain per year. As a result, in 2003 it was made mandatory that every building captured rainwater by installing a water catchment system on its rooftop. This, in theory, could go a long way. Capture the water as it comes and save it. However, many rainwater harvesting structures were either not maintained or were badly designed. In fact, a survey of Chennai’s Gandhi Nagar neighbourhood revealed that only 40% of buildings were in compliance with the obligation. 

Moreover, Chennai’s lakes need desilting.

In stark contrast to the 2019 drought, in 2015, Chennai saw devastating floods. Floods that stole at least 422 lives and caused up to $14 billion in damages. However, as a result of poor storage capacity of the lakes, such as Velachery Lake, the lakes overtopped causing much of the damage and most of the rainwater flowed into the sea; lost forever. Organisations have been pushing for lakes to be desilted for years, but progress has been slow. In a public hearing, the Madras High Court criticised the state government for having mismanaged the looming water crisis by failing to desilt water bodies.

As a result, global mismanagement and land degradation are colliding with climate change.

Chennai’s water struggles, whether this be flooding or drought, cannot be addressed until water becomes central to the city’s urban planning. And as humans we must, on a worldwide scale, reconsider how we treat our relationship with land and water before it is too late.

One thought on “Chennai’s Water Struggles

  1. The annual rainfall in Chennai is highly variable. In some years, it may be as little as 20 inches. In other years, we can get floods. The annual rainfall in such years can exceed 120 inches.

    De-silting and deepening the tanks and reservoirs will increase the storage capacity and mitigate both drought and floods.

    EFI is doing excellent work with tanks and reservoirs. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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