18 October 2019 11:24 AM

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APOORVA IYER | 25 JULY, 2019

In Depth: The Tamil Nadu Water Crisis

‘The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water’ —Ismail Serageldin


A recent Niti Aayog report states that 24 of India’s 29 states will witness a severe water crisis shortly. 21 major cities of the country will soon run out of groundwater. This year, with nearly 50 percent of India grappling with drought-like conditions, the situation has been even grimmer in states that have received rainfall below the long-period average.

The Niti Aayog has developed a Composite Water Management Index, assessing 9 large sectors on 28 different indicators covering various aspects such as groundwater, the restoration of water bodies, policy, and governance. The idea was to understand which states were using various techniques of water management and to what extent they can deal with the water shortage menace.

The biggest cause of worry in India is the agricultural sector: rural areas use 80% of the water supply for this purpose. Of course, if one factors in the water used in making consumer goods such as a pair of jeans – virtual water – then water consumption per person in urban areas comes out to be much higher.

Almost 12% of Indians are already living Day Zero, a term invented in Cape Town after they faced a water crisis last year. It refers to the active rationing of water: a time when the water supply is completely cut off and people need to tighten their water consumption as much as possible.

Often such people have to rely entirely on tankers for water – which in India are typically commercial tankers run for profit, often in connivance with government officials.

The reasons for this crisis include excessive groundwater pumping, inefficient, wasteful or non-existent water management systems, and years of deficient rain exacerbated by global warming.

Indian cities and towns regularly run out water in the summer because they lack the infrastructure to deliver piped water to every home. Most parts of the country depend mainly on the monsoon rain for the water supply. However, due to a weak monsoon for the past two years, 600 million people — a quarter of the country’s population – are living under water shortage.

As a result, 70% of affected people have to now rely on various other sources of water which are often contaminated and unsafe. The data points out that the country is facing a severe drought, estimated to result in the loss of 6% of the GDP by 2030, by which year the demand for water is expected to be twice the supply.

 

India faces worst water crisis: NITI Aayog

Source: The Hindu

There are about 17 river basins in Tamil Nadu with Cauvery being the major basin. Water from this basin is shared between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as it flows from Karnataka and then enters the state. 13 other basins are medium, and 3 are minor river basins. At 75 percent dependability, the annual surface water generated in the state is 692.78 TMC (thousand million cubic feet).

Chennai

Since the state is entirely dependent on rains for recharging its water resources, monsoon failures lead to acute water scarcity and severe droughts. Without any rainfall for the past 200 days, it has become even more crucial that Chennai finally experiences rain.

There are four major reservoirs here – Cholavaram, Redhills, Poondi, and the Chembaraambakkam. Cholavaram has a capacity 1,081 MCFT (million cubic feet) and Redhills has a capacity of 3,300. These are already dry, and Poondi reservoir is at 24 MCFT as against a capacity of 3,231 MCFT. The Chembarambakkam lake with a capacity 3,645 MCFT has a water level of a mere 1 MCFT.

The primary reason for water scarcity is the lack of proper urban development and accountability among various civic authorities. Not to forget that there has been an increase in the population, with no facilities created to meet the growing demand.

There has been an erratic water supply for the past six months. People in Chennai have to wait for Metrotankers for about 3-4 weeks and do not have any idea from where the water will come meanwhile.

This time, the situation is the worst witnessed in the past 30 years. Tankers are even collecting stagnant water from abandoned stone quarrying areas to supply 8.5 lakh households with a Metrowaters connection.

This situation is due to poor planning. In Chennai, there used to be about 150 water bodies. The Yeri Scheme implemented by the government emphasised the conversion of water bodies into residential areas and commercial plots. Even the water canals and supply routes died a slow death under this scheme whose sole stated aim was to accommodate the city’s growing population.

The problem was well known, and the administration should have steadily focused on protecting and preserving the remaining rivers which flowed across the city. To make matters worse, another issue which Chennaiites are facing is that the water supply is mixing with sewage water. Many regions of Chennai city such as Mandaveli are receiving sewage water mixed in with treated water.

The cause is the constant leaks at one or other pumping station. If repaired the problem gets solved for a week or two. After that, the whole situation is back to square one. The primary source of water supply is by the Chennai Metrowater and Supply Board. But with no solution in sight, people have had to depend on private tanks to meet the water supply. This is more costly than the public supply. Each family is forced to shell out ₹2,000 to ₹3,000 per month for water. There is an increasing burden on family budgets. After all, not everyone can afford this huge amount month after month.

The biggest issue which highlights the policy paralysis of the city administration is the development of the IT Corridor. Although the infrastructure and space were provided to them, not once did they think about the water supply which would be required to meet the demand. With the IT industry set up, the city will eventually witness a considerable level of migration from other parts of the country due to job opportunities. With 150 mega structures owned by 650 big companies located here, the demand for water was sure to rise.

All such decisions and commercial activities were the final nails in the coffin that has resulted in such an alarming situation in Chennai.

Thoothukkudi

Thoothukkudi lies in the southeastern corner of Tamil Nadu. People here are facing a water crisis of immense proportions. With the temperature soaring, there is an insufficient quantum of water. The water supply required to carry out necessary activities is only available once in 10 or 11 days. Even if people store water in various containers, it becomes contaminated within 4-5 days.

Apart from that, there is a severe problem of industrial water contamination here. The presence of Sterlite Copper, owned by the Vedanta Group, has its largest copper smelting plant in the region.

According to research conducted by the Central Ground Water Board, water samples here contained a high level of TDS (Totally Dissolved Solids) and many other heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, manganese, iron and arsenic beyond the permissible limits. These elements cause damage to the environment. Apart from that, continuous exposure to such water has also resulted in cancer and related diseases among people in the vicinity.

It was this reason that in 2015, the Supreme Court of India slapped a fine of 100 crores on Vedanta. Finally, on 18 February 2019, the Sterlite plant was closed after an order from the apex court.

 

The concluding part of this report, on what needs to be done, will be published tomorrow.

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