It is just three months since we wrote about how Chennai is liberally sucking water out from the villages in its periphery. The matter has now assumed greater significance with the panchayat of a particular hamlet filing a petition in the High Court of Madras complaining about the indiscriminate drawing of water from wells within its limits, to serve the needs of the city. It is clear this cannot go on forever and that Chennai will have to take its water conserving and rainwater harvesting schemes seriously in order to be a responsible global city.
The village that has taken on the task of challenging the metropolis is Solanur, near Tiruporur on the Old Mahabalipuram Road. The petitioner has complained that commercial entities are sinking 400ft bore wells in the vicinity. This has resulted in a severe lowering of the water table, thereby affecting the supply for local needs. Other villages have begun imposing restrictions on entry of tankers and this has caused altercations between local residents and commercial water suppliers as well. Chennai needs 1100 million litres a day (MLD) of which Metrowater supplies only 700 MLD. The rest is made up by private bodies who extract water from the mofussil.
With so many buildings coming up all over the city, the demand for water has skyrocketed. This has resulted in more and more borewells being installed, each of increasing depth, to tap water that is fast receding. Many of the housing complexes have more than one borewell and some of these are drying up within one or two years of drilling – an indication of how fast we are using up the water. These complexes have, in turn, begun depending on water tankers, which in turn are bringing in water from wells dug further away. What is clear is that this is a vicious cycle that we would do well to get out of.
The key to that rests with the CMDA, the Corporation and Metrowater. Firstly, they need to begin charging buildings based on water consumption, and this has to be done through the installation of water meters. Secondly, it is time that the Government cracked the whip on rainwater harvesting. According to a recent survey, over 100,000 Government-maintained structures are without any rainwater harvesting features. In 2004, it was this same regime in power that made a determined and highly commendable effort to get rainwater harvesting implemented in every building. The then Chief Minister appealed to citizens through the electronic media and it paid rich dividends. The Kapaleeswarar Temple tank filled up in the monsoons that followed and groundwater was recharged in most localities in Chennai.
However, that practice has now fallen into disuse. For a start, apart from the Kapaleeswarar Temple tank, most others in the city have gone dry or are having very little water. Most buildings are not ensuring that soak pits and drain chutes are kept clear to divert rainwater to underground sumps. It is doubtful whether buildings that were constructed after 2007 have even implemented rainwater harvesting. Certainly, the CMDA and Corporation authorities are not attending to this with the diligence that it requires. Public structures, such as flyovers and bridges, certainly do not have any such scheme in place, as is evident from the way run-offs simply stagnate at either end.
Given the way the city is expanding, conserving rainwater appears to be the only long-term solution. Certainly, the freedom with which we have leaned on the surrounding areas will soon be heavily restricted. If Chennai is not to have water wars with its neighbours, it will have to learn how to conserve what nature offers by way of rain.