Earlier this week, the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) was the bearer of more bad news for a city in the throes of drought.
It reported that the city’s reservoirs had plunged to one of their lowest levels in decades. Three of Chennai’s four reservoirs — Chembarambakkam, Cholavaram and Red Hills — the CMWSSB said, had officially run dry.
The Poondi Reservoir remains Chennai’s last hope, holding the last of its 17 million cubic feet in storage. Of a total holding capacity of 11,257 million cubic feet, Chennai now has just those 17 million cubic feet left in this reservoir. In July 2018, all of the city’s reservoirs saw a total of 2,069 million cubic feet of water in storage.
Not surprisingly, the effect of depleting water levels has been felt in several of Chennai’s urban pockets. In Triplicane, for instance, a lone metropolitan water tanker makes its way through tiny gullies, with 6,000 litres of water for several hundreds of homes in the neighbourhood. The problem: it simply isn’t enough. That is largely because tanker water supply in the aftermath of the drought is strictly rationed — just four pots per family. Residents of the neighbourhood say that it simply won’t do. “Water from our hand pumps is mixed with sewage and is unusable. So, we've asked the Metro Water to send us more water for all houses in our street,” says Hema, her green plastic pot in tow.
To make matters worse, these metropolitan water tankers arrive at no specific time, which means residents in the neighbourhood spend hours waiting for water. “The tanker is sent to our homes anytime between 10:00 PM and 6:00 AM, or at two the afternoon,” says Rajeshwari, another resident of Triplicane, “If there is a regular time that water is supplied, we can make plans, accordingly.” Her neighbour, Sumathi, adds: “Our menfolk need to leave their jobs, go to the metro water depot, and tip the officials. Only then do we get water regularly."
Triplicane doesn’t stand in isolation. The odd scuffle and tussle for rationed, tanker-laden water supply are commonplace in several parts of the city. For a brief moment last month, however, there was hope that things could get better when the Tamil Nadu government said it would increase supply of water supply Chennai’s homes from 450 million litres per day (MLD) to 525 MLD. The problem though is that this hasn’t satiated the city’s demand, which currently stands at 830 MLD. However, with plunging reservoir levels, that promise has become harder to keep.
The grimness of the situation has forced the government to engage NGOs and experts to de-silt water bodies, and ready them for the North East Monsoon. As on date, Chennai-based Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI) has won a permit to 11 lakes in the city, with founder Arul Krishnamurthy saying that he expects the Chennai Corporation to engage his organisation in the de-silting of 15 more, in due course. In all, EFI has de-silted 14 lakes in Chennai, and 10 lakes each in the districts of Kanchipuram and Tiruvallur.
Although de-silting isn’t exactly an immediate fix to the pressing problem of water scarcity, Arul believes it is a long-term measure to ensure Chennai doesn’t repeat mistakes of the past. "We need to focus on recycling and re-using water. We cannot continue to use fresh water to drain down toilets and more,” he said, speaking to CNBC-TV18, “Most importantly, we should put an end to this borewell menace where every household, every complex is ploughing the ground below and going deeper as water starts to vanish."The irony, however, is that with drying reservoirs, the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board is left with no other option but to turn to nine groundwater sources — like those in Poondi and Thamaraipakkam — to supply half-a-billion litres of water every day. It hopes to keep at it until the North East Monsoon hopefully arrives in November, even as Chennai’s homes continue to grapple with the acute shortage.