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Chennai’s Relationship with Water – The Up’s, Downs, Negligence, Affairs and the Breakups

A historical sketch of human settlements would reveal one stark truth: human beings are dependent on and settle around water features, be it rivers, lakes, seas or the ocean. 

If you look at Chennai’s relationship with water, you can’t deny the uncanny resemblance of its relationship to a Human relationship. It got its great Up’s and Downs followed by negligence and then affairs with private water sources almost forsaking the basic source and ultimately the breakup which has led to the current water crisis that Chennai is undergoing.

It’s that time of the year again when “Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink” becomes a common headline in Chennai newspapers. But this Robert Browning quote from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ highlights a fatal truth: there is very little of the most important source of life on earth – potable water – and Chennai, despite its pioneering water policy, has been struggling with supplying its most basic needs.

Source of Water Supply for Chennai

But where does Chennai get its water from? Chennai probably has the most varied sources of water supply for an Indian city, receiving water from at least four large reservoirs (Poondi – 3230 million cubic feet (Mcft), Puzhal – Red Hills – 3300 Mcft, Chembarambakkam – 3645 Mcft and Sholavaram – 881 Mcft), at least three river systems (Kaveri, Krishna and Palar), two desalination plants at Minjur (100 MLD) and Nemelli (100 MLD) (with two more being at various stages of planning and execution) and several hundreds of groundwater aquifers across the city and its hinterlands. Each of these solutions taken together form a barely sufficient system during average monsoons let alone after the failure of the northeast monsoon upon which the city is almost exclusively dependent.

Water Crisis in Numbers

Chennai’s Urban Growth

With a rapidly growing population in an area bounded by natural and ecological impediments on all sides, matters can only get worse. The demand for affordable housing has led to the city sprawling over a relatively larger area. Chennai has also had a large stock of unsold and unoccupied flats especially in expanded areas in the IT Corridor in the south and in the old industrial suburbs of Ennore, Manali, Madhavaram and Ambattur. Expanded further, suburbs like Pallavaram and Tambaram are also growing independently oftentimes at the cost of the region’s green and blue cover.

But it is not enough to look simply at the amount of water available for supply. It is equally if not more important to see what we are doing with the water that is being supplied?

While technology may have created solutions for creating oasis within the desert, when used without thought, this can result in serious consequences for the long-term sustainability of .

Politicians believe that the only solution is increased desalination but this comes with a variety of major environmental issues not least of which includes the erosion of the city’s long coastline which will only accentuate Chennai’s water problems further.

The relatively middle-class neighbourhood of Valmiki Nagar in Chennai was once the main source of potable water serving much of South Chennai’s needs. This aquifer fed the temple tank of the famous Marundeeshwarar Temple whose waters were said to have healing properties. Tapped along with the city’s three grand reservoirs, the water supply from this aquifer was seen as excessively abundant. Water was so abundantly available in the neighbourhood that there were instances when water had to be pumped out to enable the setting of foundations for the growing number of buildings in the region.

However, poor management/recharge and over-extraction has resulted in the abandoning of the aquifer for primary use. Admittedly, Chennai was a much smaller city with a smaller population then, and South Chennai was much less dense. But, with the growth of the city and the unsustainable expansion of its limits, these erstwhile aquifers were rendered overdrawn and inadequate. Of late, the aquifer has been plagued with saline intrusion from the sea nearby which has led to the twin challenges of eroding its pristine shoreline and the contamination of one of the city’s lifelines.

Indications of such trends repeating themselves are also evident along the three arterial thoroughfares in the south: Grand Southern Trunk (GST) Road, East Coast Road (ECR) and Old Mahabalipuram Roads (OMR) where the complex systems of undisturbed coastline, brackish marshes and forested watersheds have started giving way to modern forms of concrete developments. While arguments given both ways indicate that this is the sole way to spur growth within the city, the succeeding investment in jobs, housing and infrastructure is being done on shaky foundations.

Thus far, the picture of Chennai’s future seems very gloomy but in the aftermath of a trifecta of natural disasters in the short space of 5 year, there is a belief that systems of resilience need to be built into the city, its people and its infrastructure. Chennai’s municipal authorities along with partners in the corporate and social space have taken small steps towards preserving the city’s vanishing water bodies which are believed to have once numbered in the tens of thousands.

While some may argue that the damage, in this regard, is already done, a lot can (and is) being done to reclaim these lifelines of the city’s most fundamental need. In addition to restoring the water bodies, several major lakes and tanks in different regions are being .

Better Storm Water Drains

Some steps to protect these efforts further along this line include designing/redesigning our systems of drainage to incorporate greater elements of natural drainage rather than enforcing strict impermeable boundaries.

The purpose of stormwater drains in a flat coastal city seems a little excessive in itself. But many legacy systems such as this have been built into Chennai’s infrastructure planning. The retrofit of existing stormwater drains to incorporate scientifically-built recharge wells in areas of the city badly affected by the diametrically-opposite effects of groundwater depletion and inundation will simultaneously help in the preservation and restoration of our groundwater aquifers while also strengthening existing flood resilience.

Areas like T Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur, Nungambakkam and Mylapore that were badly affected during the 2015 Floods have favourable soil conditions for this recharge to be taken up. However, in coastal regions like Ennore, Besant Nagar, Neelankarai and Akkarai with highly permeable sandy soil types which are conducive to groundwater recharge, steps need to be taken to prevent , where this infrastructure is planned but limited execution has taken place, steps should be taken to make it mandatory.

On this front to Chennai seems to have a learn a lesson after the 2015 floods. “Storm water drains are designed for 55mm rainfall and can handle extreme water stress events” explained Mr L Nandakumar, Chief Engineer, Greater Chennai Corporation during a talk at MCCI.

Water Bodies Restoration in Chennai

In the midst of all the uncertainty and lack of physical change on the ground, it must be mentioned that Greater Chennai Corporation along with Chennai Smart City Limited has started work on the ground. According to officials “Chennai Smart City along with GCC has already started working on restoring 210 water bodies in Chennai City.”

The total restoration potential is about 1 Thousand Million Cubic Feet (1 TMC). Most of the water bodies are restored by GCC and CSCL but Private institutions and NGO’s have also partnered with the Municipal Corporation for the restoration of water bodies. “The model is very simple and straight forward” explained Commissioner G Prakash I.A.S at a recent presentation in Amma Malligai, Ripon Building. The NGO raises funds to restore a water body. Both GCC and NGO agree on each others scope of work of work and sign and MoU. “The typical timeline for a restoration is 4-6 weeks if all the execution goes well” says Mr Arun Krishnamurthy of Environmentalist Foundation of India (EFI) who has done more than 20 water body restoration for Chennai Corporation. GCC is also working with other NGO’s on this project including Chennai City Connect Foundation, Care Earth Trust among others. Many Government Institutions like the Customs Department, GoI have also contributed to restore a few water bodies. The typical cost of restoration is about Rs 10 lakh per acre just for de-silting.

As per the MoU the role of Greater Chennai Corporation is:

  • Granting formal permission to start the restoration process
  • Nominate an officer as the nodal contact person to interact with SECOND PARTY
  • Sending a team of experts for the initial assessment
  • Blocking / rerouting any sewage inflow into the water body, unless SECOND PARTY plans to implement sewage recycling facilities as part of the restoration
  • Re – routing of nearby storm water drains into the water body when appropriate
  • Physical auditing to be done after the actual restoration process is completed
  • Take up fencing around the water body, if required, to prevent misuse
  • Approval for placing of any signage boards in and around water body

As per the MoU the role of the restoring organisation is:

  • Removing of Weeds
  • Creation of a bund along the banks or strengthening of existing bund
  • Reinforce bund by planting appropriate plant species grass along bunds
  • Plant native species of trees along the walkway involving the local community 
  • Ensure that the fence for the water body is prevented from any damage
  • Discuss and clarify with FIRST PARTY any plan to block or recycling sewage inflow into the water body
  • Create signages for public (safety & security warning, amenities, etc.)
  • Remove solids along the embankment and also floating solids on the water surface, and de-silt the water body – if necessary, by pumping out the water
  • Where possible, create community space in the form of a park / walking area/ sitting area / watching pavilion etc.
  • Create trenches and percolation pits for better water storage
  • Once all restoration work is completed, if necessary do bioremediation of the water and check/document water quality at different points for a period of 1 year.  
  • Create awareness among neighbourhood residents / users to get them to “own” and protect the water body
  • In case of people using the water for washing then simple infrastructure (washing tanks with collection pits) can be created. Thereby not allowing people to go into the water body

Rain Water Harvesting

in 2002-04 the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Selvi J Jayalalitha introduced a law in the building rules of the state mandating every building in the state to have a Rain Water Harvesting Structure. Under the rule, the Completion Certificate was given only if a building had implemented a RWH structure as detailed in the building rules. The enforcement system made sure that most buildings adhered to this rule. The result saw increase in the ground water table in almost all parts of Chennai Metropolitan Area.

Currently GCC is working to increase the number of rain water harvesting structures in public spaces and road sides. The Storm Water Drain department is also creating rain water recharge pits inside storm water drains.

Restoration of Temple Tanks

Greater Chennai Corporation has also restored more than 15 temple tanks in the City. Temples were historically places that served as the location for ground water recharge to the surrounding areas.

Restoration work at Mallegeshwarar Koil

Due to increase in the built-up area, GCC has taken pipes from nearby property rooftops and led it into the Temple tanks. Percolation pits are also laid at the bed of the temple. Many of the tanks restored have led to increase in the water table in the surrounding areas as per the report of Central Ground Water Board.

Water from nearby rooftops brought to Thiruvetteswarar Koil

The storm water drain department has already taken up work on building Missing Links in Chennai to allow for better drainage across the City.

Fragmented Governance of Water

“On of the primary issues with Water Management is lack of a single coordinating body” point out experts. To give the readers an understanding into the level of institutional fragmentation we have pointed the various stakeholders of water in Chennai City. The 3 main rivers flowing through Chennai – The Cooum, Kosathalayar and Adyar river are managed by Water Resources Department (WRD) of Public Works Department (PWD). The Storm Water Drain is managed by the Greater Chennai Corporation. The Drinking Water and Sewage system is managed by Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply & Sewerage Board (CMWSSB). Many water bodies are controlled by the Revenue department.

Currently the restoration work done by Storm Water Drain Department comes under the following review committee’s:

  • State Level Committee on Water bodies Restoration
  • District Level Committee headed by Collector
  • NGT Monitored Restoration process
  • In Greater Chennai Corporation, the Storm Water Drain Department having Good Team of Engineers headed by Chief Engineer and Monitored by Commissioner.
  • Deputy Commissioner/Managing Director of Smart City, Monitors Water Body Restoration taken up with Smart city fund