Efficiency Measures Can Solve Chennai’s Water Woes

By Pallavi Singh and Lahari Babu

Chennai water crises
Image credit - citizen matters, chennai

Leading Chennai citizens identify solutions to beat the recurring water crisis at a discussion organized by the AltTech Foundation and WOW Action Forum recently

WOW Chennai is an Action Forum launched by about a hundred citizen leaders of the city. This is part of a larger mission across many cities that the AltTech Foundation has launched in collaboration with The International Centre for Clean Water that is housed in the IIT-Madras Campus. 

The city is home to about 1.1 crore people. At about 150 litres of water used per person per day, about 180-200 crore litres of fresh water is needed every day. The metro water supply now supplies about 80 crore litres a day from the existing reservoirs. And leakages in the distribution system account for 40 percent of the water, or about 30 crore litres. The city supplements the rest of the daily need of about 150 crore litres with groundwater reserves.

The city administrators have been heavily investing in large water supply projects to secure an additional 88-90 crore litres per day from sources that range from the Minjur desalination plant (10 crore litres a day), Krishna water (50 crore litres), Nemeli desalination plant (10 crore litres), and Cauvery water from the Veeranam Tank (18 crore litres).

The population of the City is expected to grow to 1.5 crore by 2035, with the demand for fresh water increasing to 300 crore litres a day.

Here is a Nine Point Action Plan to enable the Goal of a Water Positive Chennai by 2030:

  1. To Cowlagi Sripati of the International Centre for Clean Water, “What Chennai needs to do is not use less water, but use water efficiently. We have enough solutions. If City leaders galvanised action in city wards and apartment and small industry communities, with local leaders connecting with Action Forums like WOW for solutions, we will see a clear one-half drop in demand for freshwater in about 3 years of such campaigning. What is even more interesting is that this can be achieved without the government intervening at all, and with just water-users adopting solutions that are available at good costs and effective technology.”
  2. E Nandakumar, an IITM 1984 alumni, and in recent years the CEO of the International Centre for Clean Water that is housed in the sprawling IITM campus, “If just 10 apartments of about 300 flats to each of them, can save about 2 crore litres a year of the 3 crore litres they currently consume, that will reduce freshwater demand by 20 crore litres. Add the math at about 500 apartments of the 20,000 apartments Chennai has, and you will see a saving of 500 crore litres in a year, and this is a saving that will recur every year. Water efficiency is a major road to solving Water deficiency.”
  3. Nurture existing finite sources. It is a blend of solutions at the building scale with active water-user participation to ease their challenge and to save financially costs of water purchase, and coupled with Chennai’s public bodies and the government focusing on the restoration and nurturing of lakes that have survived all the abuse of the last 40 years. There used to be over a thousand lakes. The City has sustained even today on the water supply from Poondi and Chembarambakkam or the Sholavaram lake and not by the three rivers of Chennai – two of which [Adyar and Cooum] have been reduced to being sewers. Kosathalaiyar, the third river, is still a source of sustenance for the city. The Buckingham canal – which traverses 800 km from Villupuram, south of Chennai, to Kakinada, north of Andhra– is another treasure that Chennai has to nurture, and protect. These are all finite sources. They cannot yield any more than they do as fresh water supply to the city.
  4. Create Shallow or Dug Wells in private and public lands. There’s then the concern of a lot more rain in Chennai than there was in earlier years. The water table is already high, and the higher precipitation means floods and inundation as the 2021 November rains also rudely reminded the citizens.
    “Restoring water bodies and developing rainwater collecting sites will make a big difference,” says Sekhar Raghavan, a veteran rainwater harvesting expert.  How do we work on such potential? What are likely deterrents? Why have people not acted on these even if they seem as alluringly simple? Raghavan is a long-time water-watcher who brings clarity in understanding of the situation on the ground. But voices such as his do not get heard as much as they should be. He says, “Every home, every building, must create open shallow wells, and use them to draw water. We have to create a ‘live bank’ of water that is deposited and withdrawn for the shallow aquifer and the soil strata of the city to be alive, and working for us.”
  5. Use groundwater and not Chennai’s Metro water when you can. What the city saw in November 2021 in Chennai is very different from the past. Raghavan observes, “We received a lot of rain in previous years, which caused overflow and floods in the city. This last monsoon, though, we were being flooded by our own groundwater. This is something that few are aware of. People want recharge wells whenever there is flooding.
    Flooding is caused only by recharging wells! What is more important is that drawing of water should be practised every day in every building. There is an alluvial layer above the hard rock and another beneath the hard rock, and continuous depositing of water and drawing of it will keep the strata nurtured and groundwater retention strengthened, apart from helping us ward off threats of floods in each of the city suburbs. People should drill wells near their homes but must also extract water regularly: only then will the threat of floods subside.”
  6. Pricing of water. The other challenge that the government has to address is the cost of water. Says Raghavan, “If people don’t pay enough for it, they will not prize it. Chennai has a flat rate for every six months—regardless of how much a home or building consumes. So the need to use groundwater doesn’t exist. If water costs more, users will turn to drawing water from shallow wells. It will build a hydrological cycle for the city that will help beat the risk of floods and of deficits. Will we learn our lesson from 2021 and set specific citizen action targets? Will the City Administration and Government also endorse it?”
  7. A low-hanging fruit that Chennai’s water administration and the state government can resolve with a little effort is the persistent, massive loss of nearly 40 percent on leakages and distribution. With grid water supply to the city at about 80 crore litres a day, this loss alone accounts for 30 crore litres a day and more! So where does Chennai get the rest of the fresh water demanded every day by both citizens and industry? Groundwater. No surprise that the very economy of Chennai is threatened this decade with much more that is required to make it sustainable and liveable. The city draws more than half its need from groundwater. The story that is not told by official data is of industry and the massive quantum of water they draw in the northern parts of Chennai [Ennore] which have served as the source of water, and is threatened as the city extends rapidly to its west [Sriperumbudur] and the south [Chingleput].
  8. Learn from cities like Puri and Bhubaneswar. Water experts in Chennai have long advocated simple measures the government and the water utility can take to plug the massive leakages in the system of pipelines that is at least a century old and creaking under its own weight. ‘Non-revenue water’ goes unbilled despite the cost that is incurred in hauling such water all the way to the city, treating it, and then losing it to leakages. Solutions that bring digitisation and monitoring the distribution lines are available. Cities like Puri have shown in the last 2-3 years that such digitising monitoring can plug leakages dramatically. There are experts willing to offer solutions. The State and the water utility will have to act in earnest.
  9. Nurture the shallow aquifer across the city. There is then the matter of how we deal with the city shallow aquifers, says Ashok Natarajan, the former CEO of TWIC.  “It is easy to forget how Chennai’s aquifers have served the city’s people in the past.”

Saravanan Janakiraman, an urban analyst, adds, “We know very little about groundwater sources. We need to understand Chennai’s aquifer across the city’s geographic spread. It is this aquifer that was classified as ‘ground zero’ two years ago but has since rebounded back; it is this aquifer that meets our needs in every drought. During the 1981 drought, Metro Water supplied just 300 million litres per day. We were able to access about 600 MLD of ground water from the city’s wells and borewells. We must understand these underground sources. The data and analysis gathered by that study, helped us locate possible areas inside the city that can meet about 100 MLD.”

Pallavi Singh & Lahari Babu are part of Team WOW Action Forum

WOW AF is a multi-city citizen-led initiative now in action in four Indian cities of Bengaluru, Chennai, Trichy, Hyderabad. It is led by water experts and citizen leaders who seek to bring water efficiency with water-users adopting solutions to meet a Mission Target of Saving 3000 Crore Litres.



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