CHENNAI’S WATER CRISIS
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’.