CHEN­NAI’S WA­TER CRI­SIS

India Today - - INSIDE - By Raj Bha­gat Palanicham­y

The Chen­nai flood of 2015 caused im­mense loss of life and property. To­day, the city is run­ning out of wa­ter, putting im­mense stress on the pop­u­la­tion and ad­min­is­tra­tion. The four ma­jor lakes that supply Chen­nai’s drinking wa­ter are dry, the Kr­ishna river scheme didn’t pro­vide re­lief and the Veer­anam project has proved in­suf­fi­cient to meet the city’s wa­ter de­mand. Ground wa­ter re­serves are run­ning low, too, leav­ing Chen­nai de­pen­dent on de­sali­na­tion plants.

One ma­jor rea­son for Chen­nai’s wa­ter cri­sis is poor man­age­ment of de­mand and supply. Over the past cen­tury, like in many other In­dian cities, Chen­nai’s wa­ter de­mand has in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly due to rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion and in­dus­trial and agricultur­al growth. Hence, even slight fluc­tu­a­tions in supply can

cause a cri­sis. Chen­nai’s rain­fall in 2018, 835 mm, was less than the av­er­age 1,400 mm, trig­ger­ing the cri­sis this year.

The gov­ern­ment’s in­creased fo­cus on de­sali­na­tion plants and on bring­ing in wa­ter from other watersheds might not solve the prob­lem. De­sali­na­tion plants mean ma­jor in­vest­ment and oper­a­tional costs, and the Kr­ishna and Cau­very rivers are also af­fected by wa­ter scarcity is­sues. In the face of such dilemma, the city needs to consider im­ple­ment­ing a com­pre­hen­sive plan to avert future wa­ter crises.

The first step would be for Chen­nai to im­prove en­force­ment of ex­ist­ing laws on rain­wa­ter har­vest­ing. Rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion has led to the con­struc­tion of more and more pave­ments which pre­vent rain­wa­ter ab­sorp­tion and ground­wa­ter recharge.

The wa­ter cri­sis in Chen­nai isn’t due to lack of wa­ter, but in­ef­fi­cient de­mand and supply man­age­ment

Green spa­ces and wet­lands—recharge points—need to be cre­ated across the city. Rain­fall recharge struc­tures in pub­lic spa­ces, like at bus stands and on roads, need to be im­proved. Corporate firms in the city could fund these so­lu­tions as part of their corporate so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity pro­grammes, thereby re­duc­ing the fi­nan­cial bur­den on the city.

A sec­ond step would be to re­use waste­water. Chen­nai’s lakes and rivers have been af­fected by sewage dump­ing. Small treat­ment plants, com­bined with apart­ment-level sewage treat­ment sys­tems, could treat the wa­ter to be used for non-potable pur­poses (run­ning heating, ven­ti­la­tion and air conditioni­ng sys­tems and land­scap­ing), with­out us­ing more land. Mul­ti­ple In­dian start-ups are work­ing on pro­vid­ing so­lu­tions and rev­enue mod­els, and need en­cour­age­ment from the gov­ern­ment.

Thirdly, Chen­nai’s plan must also in­cor­po­rate the pro­tec­tion of lakes and as­so­ci­ated flood­plains—ma­jor recharge points—which also help pre­vent floods. Rapid con­struc­tion over flood­plains has made Chen­nai vul­ner­a­ble to both floods and drought. The Chen­nai Metropoli­tan Devel­op­ment Authority needs to put an im­me­di­ate stop to such con­struc­tion and consider pro­vid­ing in­cen­tives to pri­ori­tise tran­sit-ori­ented devel­op­ment along the ridges to re­duce pres­sure on flood­plains and al­low land value cap­ture for mass tran­sit sys­tems which gen­er­ates rev­enue.

Fourthly, the gov­ern­ment should pro­vide open and transparen­t data on wa­ter re­sources and uses, such as the ex­tent of wa­ter pipes and how much wa­ter flows through them ev­ery day. This will al­low ex­perts and aca­demics to pool their thoughts and ideas. As part of the smart cities pro­grammes and data ini­tia­tives, Chen­nai needs to digi­tise itself for reimag­in­ing its future.

And, fi­nally, Chen­nai’s ir­ri­ga­tion efficiency needs to im­prove. Agricultur­e is the big­gest con­sumer of wa­ter in In­dia and there are half a mil­lion hectares of farm­land up­stream of Chen­nai. Im­prov­ing ir­ri­ga­tion efficiency will in­crease wa­ter re­sources. How­ever, we can’t ex­pect small-scale farm­ers to im­ple­ment high-cost ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems. City gov­ern­ments and the bank­ing and in­sur­ance sec­tors should ex­plore new fi­nan­cial mod­els that would al­low them to in­vest in and im­prove ru­ral ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems.

This five-point formula might not add fi­nan­cial strain to any of the stake­hold­ers—the gov­ern­ment, farmer, res­i­dents, and cor­po­rates—and would im­prove the liveli­hood con­di­tions in the city. With a re­cent NITI Aayog re­port claim­ing that 21 In­dian cities would run out of ground wa­ter by 2020, there’s no time to waste. We need to im­ple­ment sus­tain­able so­lu­tions with a fo­cus on in­te­grated wa­ter re­source man­age­ment to avoid our own ‘Day Zero’.

ARUN SANKAR/AFP

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