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Water Woes

Water Woes

The water crisis in Chennai city is an annual crisis with a little more than one-third of the city dwellers constantly crying their unheard woes. We couldn’t have turned a blind eye all these years to the women and children queuing up in the scorching heat for single pot of water during the thick of Chennai summers, and also could not have been blinded to the sprawling lawns of the city’s super rich, being showered with the scarce ‘blue gold’ simultaneously.  This year something different is evolving. The city’s water crisis is tending to become a leveller with no favouritism and prejudice towards its citizens. In thirty years, the city is heading towards point zero, dry and parched. All – rich and poor are about to face the catastrophe. Water scarcity has started impacting the law and order situation as the city has started seeing a spurt in cases of ‘water rage’.

The Kerala State government has offered to quench our thirst, but we are to understand that at present Tamil Nadu has sufficient supply and doesn't require additional assistance. On the one hand, we have a governance system that is yet to acknowledge the truth and on the other, we have a citizenry who are storming heavens and praying to the Rain Gods for mercy upon all its people. Yes, this time it is for real… we have not seen the rains as yet. The summer of 2019 - no rain for about 200 days.

As of today, the four major reservoirs that are the city’s main source of water are below one percent and holds not even 1% of their capacity and ground water levels have plummeted further. This emergent situation did not just happen all of a sudden. It was gradual, very gradual for a few years now. It was reported. Social activists, citizen’s forums and concerned NGOs have voiced their opinion over the last few years, forewarning the State that very soon water will be a scarce resource. The city is now looking to desalinated water, water from abandoned quarries and the Veeranam piped water. Piped water supply is rationed, educational institutions are closing partially, corporates are requesting employees to work from home. With low groundwater levels and inadequate rainwater systems, the State has resorted to trucking water where hundreds of thousands of residents wait for a meagre supply. The frenzy has begun.

Reasons and Remedies

Rampant urban growth with unregulated industrial expansion, uncontrolled pollution and destructive development projects – have stressed water tables, contaminated surface water bodies and rivers, poisoned freshwater springs and now threaten life itself. From a situation of plenty we are confronted with the reality of chronic water poverty and deprivation. Urban water infrastructure has broken down, and instead of public access to clean drinking water, the city depends on bottled, privatized water and deliveries of water lorries.

Is climate playing a truant game? Are there technical, financial or managerial solutions? Does it go beyond techno-financial solutions that should actually make water a basic human right to be democratically governed by the people? We tend to put the onus on climate change and talk of the population as the cause. We blame the urban poor, the rural farmer and tribal poor for depleting forest resources. But the way in which water over the last few years has been mismanaged has not been deeply analysed and perhaps could be one of the foremost reasons for the deadly drought that is fast approaching.

Another reason could be the neglect of the three rivers that run through the city. They have been killed by filth and untreated sewer and used as gutters over decades, which were once blue navigable rivers. Little or nothing has been done to restore these rivers. Being a coastal city, the run-off rate in water is very high, and it is next to impossible to construct dams in this narrow strip of a city to conserve water.

The city’s topography is such that it does not have perennial rivers. Its underground water is too deep, saline and contaminated for use. Most localities do not have piped water. Chennai once known as the flood plains has not seen the filling up of water in its water bodies in recent years. The opening up of the IT Corridor with mega structures owned by multinational companies have recklessly plundered ground water and blocked waterways. Here again authorities have turned a blind eye.

Metaphorically speaking, we need to understand that water needs to flow freely and cannot be controlled. Therefore, water is a social resource that has to be freely used, easily accessible, communally managed, and conserved by all. Should water remain as a ‘common resource’ to be managed for the larger community wellbeing? Is it proper to treat water as a common ‘good’ or economic commodity, to be given to private companies for profit making and trading?

Long-term sustainable solutions are possible only when we ensure democratic participation of people at all levels of policy making, project formulation and programme implementation. Whatever be the solution, we cannot ignore the reality that the water crisis needs to address the human element as the prime player – that severe water deprivation affects all and that the socially and economically marginalised communities are affected most. Those who could afford it bought water according to their affordability. More and more water sources were being plundered. Today we are reaching a point of no return. There is no water even if one could afford it.

Some of the most inspiring efforts from Latin America are worth emulating - the referendum supported by citizens of Uruguay declaring the right to water as a fundamental right, water as a common resource and placing a constitutional prohibition from sale of water for profit.  Creating ‘Room for the River’ a project of the Dutch government is also worth emulating. There can be no better way to facilitate this search for solutions than when systems can be brought together in a wider partnership, learning from one another, contributing to the growth of knowledge and skills thereby strengthening the global movement to ensure water security.

An important aspect for consideration is the direct connection of women with water. The water crisis is a personal crisis for women because the onus of procuring water for the family is on the women. They are responsible for water needs of the family - for drinking, cooking, sanitation and hygiene. In their efforts to get water for their families, they often face an impossible choice - certain death without water or possible death due to illness from dirty water. Thus, bringing women to the discussion table is to be factored in.

Another effort could be the coming together of committed professionals for a water dialogue to change mindsets and create new action. Experts in water management, academicians and activists, architects and artists, community leaders, women leaders, NGOs personnel, scientists, town planners and urban designers are people who can contribute their might to the cause. As mentioned earlier probable solutions could be to study rainwater patterns, map rainfall, rainwater and ground water resources, wastewater generation and recycling, water harvesting and management systems.

With the devastating effects of the Chennai floods of December 2015 arousing attention from all corners of the world, this alarming water reality has come back to our collective awareness. Besides being indifferent or fatalistic, there is a real chance for a turn-around. Today the 20th of June seems hopeful, after about 200 days parts of the city smells the rain… ‘mann vasanai’ in Tamizh! It appears hopeful… The Rain Gods are approaching. May we learn a few lessons to turn scarcity to security as we are hopeful of a few showers

(The writer teaches at Stella Maris College, Chennai and is an Associate Professor & Former Head, Dept. of Social Work, Chairperson, BoS (SW) University of Madras, Chennai.)

(Published on 24th June 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 26)