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S. Sivadas 
S. Sivadas 
Opinion

Grappling with water crisis in Chennai

S.Sivadas

The high-profile Niti Ayog think tank of the Centre has calculated that 21 cities in the country will be running out of ground water in another year. This might be a scary thought but already Chennai has provided proof, as it is in the midst of one of its worst water crises, with the deluge of four years ago not quite erased from its public memory.

Coming as it does soon after the Agni Nakshatram (the fortnight of fire) this water scarcity in a particularly hot summer has been something that people have not bargained for. The four lakes in the vicinity that feed the city have all dried up and residents struggle to get minimum water to cook, bathe and wash clothes. Malls have closed and so are restaurants and people have been advised to work from home.

The deluge of four years back caused much havoc and displacement in Chennai and could have been a warning signal. That excess water could have been enough to recharge the city’s many water bodies and lakes. The Cooum River that snakes through the city could have been filled and made operational. The Buckingham Canal that runs parallel through the beach could have been de-silted and made operational and that too would have helped raise the water table and increase the moisture content. Instead of that, the unbridled development paved all these sources and many of the open spaces with concrete did not help the rain water to percolate to recharge the aquifers. The water collected above ground flooded the roads and drained off into the sea.

According to the Central Water Commission, India gets more than its share of water for the requirements of its one billion plus people through the monsoon. It receives 4000 billion cubic meters of rain, for its requirement of just 3000 billion. But too much of this bounty is wasted due to sheer inefficiency and misuse. In the north-western parts of the country that are irrigated by the great rivers that hurtle down the Himalayan ranges the wastage has been the maximum. The ‘green revolution’ of the 1970s when this region turned into the country’s granary because of the linking canals and tube wells that pumped out groundwater, became unsustainable and by 2011, 245 billion cubic meters of water had to be withdrawn for irrigation - a quarter of that year’s total groundwater depletion.

This is why Niyi Ayog’s cautionary note sounds so ominous, as of the 21 cities it has picked up for groundwater depletion, the Capital and Bengaluru, the IT hub, heads the list. Once known as the city of gardens and lakes, the mindless expansion of this tech city has made it no more liveable or a haven for the retired. As for Delhi, once a city of kuans (wells) and serais and baolis (water bodies) where at ten feet you hit ground water, this is waiting for its date with scarcity. It has been computed that two hundred thousand Indians already die every year because they don't have a safe water supply, according to the report. And a shocking 600 million people face ‘high to extreme’ water stress.

Coming to Chennai's double vulnerability, floods and scarcity, these have a common root. Blinded by the frenzy to grow, the city has paved over the very infrastructures that nurtured water. Between 1980 and 2010, heavy construction in the city meant its area under buildings has increased from 47 sq km to a whopping 402 sq km. As a result, the areas under wetlands declined steeply from 186 to 71.5 sq km. No stranger to drought or heavy rains, the city receives the north-east monsoon, accompanied by depressions and cyclones, which brings most of the water in October and November, and that has now become unpredictable. Some years it just pours, and at other times, it just fails to show up, as it has done this time.

Earlier agrarian settlements in and around Chennai, more aware of the vagaries of the climate, had prepared for both eventualities, - with growth limited not by availability of land but of water. Their uncanny agrarian logic thrived in open spaces and each village had vast tracts of land, including water bodies, grazing grounds and Poromboke, the commons. Construction was outlawed in the commons and there was never any encroachment. The districts of Chennai, Thiruvallur and Kanchipuram alone had more than 6000 eries (water bodies), some 1,500 years old.

These shallow, spacious tanks were carved out on the region's flat coastal plains by erecting bunds with the same earth that was scooped out to deepen them. Essentially, the infrastructure for water to stay and flow was created first; the settlements came later. So rather than transport water over long distances and against gravity, early settlers had the technology and good sense to harvest water where it was available. But the advent of modern technology put an end to this practice.

On the other hand farmers in the northwest don't just expect to continue to grow water-intensive crops they want free or subsidized power to run the tube wells that pump out their depleting groundwater.

More than oil it is going to be water that would be the political flashpoint of this century, planners and futurologists have often cautioned. And water-stressed India will likely be one of the first places to test that hypothesis. Tamil Nadu had always complained it that it doesn't receive its fair share of the Cauvery waters and that the authority that manages the river has accused the neighbouring Karnataka of holding onto water that it should have allowed to flow down to the Cauvery delta. Since Tamil Nadu uses every drop of the Cauvery water till it reaches the delta in Tanjore, it has a point. At one time, farmers in Karnataka did forgo their share so that Tanjore farmers were not in distress.

In the north where more than a billion people depend upon the Himalayan rivers things are slightly complicated. And to thicken the plot, Bangladesh and Pakistan feel that India is being stingy with its river water. For Indian strategists there is also the other constant worry, that China will divert water from the Himalayan rivers, mainly the mighty Brahmaputra, that rise in Tibet to feed its own developing cities.

An India that is in a tearing hurry to urbanize as well as develop also needs to drought-proof its cities and rationalize its farming and for that water harvesting must be a priority, along with evolving mechanisms for groundwater replenishment. With every summer getting hotter and less bearable, and climatologists predicting the worst, if Indians run short of water as well, one of the world's most populous nations could well become uninhabitable.

The floods in Chennai are thus a warning. As the world warms, the rains on which India depends are becoming erratic. They frequently fail to arrive on time, and they fall in a more disparate and unpredictable pattern and the country can no longer afford to waste its dwindling resources.

The visuals on the television screens of the Mumbai deluge and the long lines of women waiting for the water tankers carrying bright plastic cans on the same day are the perfect metaphor for the shape of the future. Apart from the planners and engineers working out their strategies to overcome this crisis that seems to be happening more frequently, it would also be prudent that some of the proven traditional methods combating this crisis may be tried out.