Depletion of lake, rivers plunge Chennai into water crisis
By the existence of rain, the world is preserved, and it is worthy of being called ambrosia, sang poet Thiruvalluvar, who some believe is from fourth-fifth century CE. So, naturally, in Chennai, in the early 1970s, the local government filled in what was the Nungambakkam lake and affixed a memorial, Valluvar Kottam, to the saint-poet at what would have been its deepest point. It was symptomatic of what would unfold in the metropolitan area of Chennai, then a mere 110 square metres, as it began to expand over the next four decades. For water, the city had other plans.
Adiseshan, 65, and his sons Sasikumar, 38, and Purushottaman, 35, both B.Com degree holders, form the eighth and ninth generation of paddy farmers in Kakkavakkam village in Uuthakottai (the name itself means spring) taluk of Tiruvallur district. They own 2.5 acres of lush fields overflowing with sweet groundwater that Chennai Metro Water Board and private tankers come to buy every year from May to June, when the city is at its thirstiest. Wells spring forth at 7 feet and at 40, the bore wells gush even when rains fail. Both the Puzhal reservoir and the Poondi reservoir, key sources of Chennai’s drinking water, also lie in this district and private water bottling companies are everywhere.
“We don’t always charge them money, sometimes we give the water to tankers for free, because we have it in abundance and the city suffers,” Purushottaman says. The tankers sell the water in the city for up to Rs 5,000 a load. Around 500 tankers leave the village a day in the summer months, the farmers say. The farmers here consistently reap three harvests a year, every four months, like clockwork. Kakkavakam lies on the banks of the seasonal Araniar river and is also fed by a network of canals, sustained by a traditional irrigation water body, aeri, the Kakkavakkam-aeri, measuring 1,475 acres. The fields here are abundant in paddy and groundnut that villagers send to the Redhills market, and vegetables, jasmine and roses to the Koyambedu market. More than 80% are marginal farmers.
Research by the Centre for Climate Change team headed by professor emeritus A Ramachandran at the Anna University has mapped the reduction of agricultural land by 24% and wetlands by 33% in Chennai over the last decade. Highways, flyovers, airports and highrises on reclaimed water bodies are largely to blame. Adaikala Regan, a 26-year-old marine engineer volunteer at Vanagam, an eco-resource outfit near Karoor founded by the late environmental activist and agricultural scientist G Nammalwar, points to the record of depletion of Chennai’s water bodies in the place names. Places that ended in aar were on the banks of a river, eri next to an irrigation tank, and bakkam, or pakkam, were next to ponds or tanks.
Surely, traditional systems have no claim in a greedily expanding vertical city, marching towards becoming a 1,000 sq.m. megapolis from its present 465 sq.m. Except, as Chennai runs on a rationed distribution of half its water requirement at 450 mld, and building societies pay in the range of Rs 2-3 lakh per month towards tanker bills, the only places in Chennai that are not running out of water are those that have clung to the traditional models.
In Vengaivasal, once considered the outskirts and now subsumed by the city’s suburbs, the two aeris, periyeri and chitteri, have been stubbornly protected against encroachments, construction and water pilfering by the local community. The ground water table here consequently stands at 40 feet, says MS Selvam, 68, whose family has lived on the edge of the chitteri for generations. Even so, despite protests they haven’t been able to completely ward off the water packaging units, many unlicensed, that are drawn to high water tables. Tankers stake out unclaimed aeris subsumed by weeds and garbage down the road where they extract water through bore wells and sell them for a king’s ransom. When a Madras high court order attempted to regulate over 450 water packaging units in Chennai in 2018, they unanimously went on strike, crippling the water supply for days. The breakdown of fragile government control over water distribution was thus made apparent, and the city tossed to the mercy of the parallel water economy.
Academics like Madhavi Ganesan, at the Centre for Water Resources, Anna University, blame the water gap on the unchecked growth of the city, a lack of planning on the supply side, but also a lack of control on the demand side. Chennai’s 40 temple tanks, an area of her specialisation, can easily be used to recharge ground water, she notes. There is, however, the need for a water budget, as much for consumption patterns as for supply schedules. V Geethalakshmi, climate change expert at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, also points to the lack of regulation on the demand side as contributing to the larger malaise of water scarcity. Free electricity and water – common and popular electoral promises – have meant that there are no consequences to unchecked water use. Alongside denudation of forest cover, depletion of Tamil Nadu’s complex aeri systems, a lack of urban planning and foresight has much to blame.
Cities are no longer equipped to tide over the intermittent dry spells. Tamil Nadu’s pressure systems function differently from the rest of the country due to the South-West and North-East monsoons. So any delay has major implications. Hotter summers in the past few decades have meant more extraction of water with bore wells of up to 1,000 ft — what Nammalwar called “uppa thinavan ku dagham iddikum” (a man who eats salt is left thirsty”).
The result is a system that leaves the tail end, those without cash to spare, wanting and creates in both rural and urban systems a hierarchy of water privilege.
The result is officials constantly playing catch-up when they should be thinking ahead.
Water budgets being spent on desalination plants are pointless and work for countries like the United Arab Emirates that do not receive rain, says Chennai’s rain man Sekhar Raghavan, under whose guidance late chief minister J Jayalalithaa mandated replenishing groundwater into law. New vertical colonies burdened by tanker costs increasingly are turning to him to put in rainwater harvesting systems now, he says. Raghavan fields at least three calls a day as the reality that there is no choice but to put water back into the ground hits home. But as the structure and texture of the city community changes, a larger policy is called for – not isolated group efforts that make for little long term impact.
MS Ravi is one of the natives of the original Chennai, a sixth-generation resident farmer in perhaps one of the last of Chennai’s traditional farms in Manapakkam, behind the Meenabakkam airport. His open well has water at 14 feet. Seven acres of lush paddy fields come as a surprise in the midst of rapid construction. It won’t last. Where one family of 10 used village wells, one gated colony of 400 will extract more. Opposite him, a gated colony under construction has bored 30 wells over 140 feet deep. The neighbouring plot, separated by a traditional water channel that once brought irrigation from the Chembarambakkam lake to all the fields in the village (and which once housed a lush paddy field, 6 acres big) has recently been sold to a motor company that is advertising it as a covetable cluster of high-end high rises.
Ravi is the last man standing. He recalls a childhood when they took produce on a boat down the channel to join the Adayar river to Pondicherry. He is also one of the last guardians of two local temples that have stayed though the village around it has disappeared. Though he has resisted selling, he says he may be faced with no choice now. “Street lights attract insects that feed on the crop near the road.
Those fields edged by the other housing complexes have their water table lowered by bore well extraction in the neighbourhood. Shops on the peripheral road dump garbage into the fields and a bottling unit on the edge is extracting water out of the ground. When one official will come and tell them to stop, four more will come behind and tell them to carry on. The irrigation channel is a stagnant water ditch. When the floods came, everything was submerged because the water was being sent back with no direction to flow out. Where we used to get 150 bags of rice and three harvests a year, last year we got fifty and two harvests.”
There are other issues, urea and farmer’s benefits are not available within urban city limits and Ravi doesn’t qualify for compensation for farming. Eventually, the isolated farmer or protector of water bodies, no matter how vital his role, cannot hold on to the water alone in the metropolis.
The tail end of distribution is always the worst hit and must give the most by way of land and opportunity. In the shadow of the Nemmelli desalination plant, in Sulerikadu village, ground water is brackish and yellow. The men of the village receive employment once in one-and-a-half months under a rotation
system of the panchayat and must wait their turn. The jobs they were promised at the plant have not materialised. They still have to pay Rs 30 per bubble top for their drinking water needs. “They take from us and send it to the city,” Yellamma, a resident, says.
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