Water scarcity

In Chennai, a tanker strike spells the beginning of a water crisis even before summer has set in

The strike ended on Wednesday with tankers allowed to extract groundwater illegally. But is legalising a necessary evil the answer?

Monday was quieter than most days in South Chennai. Amid the usual din of bustling traffic, the rumble of water lorries ploughing through its roads could not be heard. The South Chennai Private Water Lorry Owners Association, which has some 1,200 tankers that are a lifeline to large parts of the city, was on strike.

For the next three days, localities here, including the many information technology firms that dot the Old Mahabalipuram Road stretch, did not receive their regular water supply. Some residents even contemplated moving out of their homes, reported The New Indian Express. This part of Chennai has been dependent on water supply from tankers since its development over the past two decades.

The strike is the result of an old dispute between private tanker owners and the district administration. It flared up last week after revenue officials in neighbouring Kancheepuram district seized five lorries for extracting water illegally from agricultural wells.

The dispute was resolved on Wednesday night at a meeting between the administration and the association, but it may just have been the first warning sign of a particularly dry summer with recurring fights over water.

Summer is yet to truly set in but, clearly, Chennai’s water crisis has already begun.

A running dispute

The administration – which fined the owners of the five lorries Rs 2,000 each last week – said that tankers frequently draw water without the required permission.

“We repeatedly get complaints that water is being extracted from wells from agricultural land, using free power supply meant for farmers for commercial purposes,” said VP Jeyaseelan, the sub-collector of Chengalpet division in Kancheepuram.

Tanker owners need clearance from the groundwater department to extract groundwater, and the permission of the rural development department to dig new borewells, he said. “They didn’t adhere to these rules, so we had to take action,” he added.

Over the years, rapidly depleting groundwater levels within the city have pushed the private tanker owners to travel into interior villages in search of wells. They pay villagers between Rs 100 and Rs 150 for a tanker full of water, which is around 12,000 litres. They then sell this water to residents in the city for Rs 800 to Rs 1,200 per tanker.

The result is an internal conflict in the villages between those who sell the water to the tanker owners and farmers.

Tankers draw groundwater using pipes. Image credit: Vinita Govindarajan
Tankers draw groundwater using pipes. Image credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Two years ago, some villagers from Kancheepuram filed a petition in the Madras High Court against the extraction of water from their wells. The court ruled in their favour, asking the administration to ensure that the tankers did not obtain the water illegally. Jeyseelan said that last year too, some tankers were seized but let off when the president of the association promised to secure legal permits.

This time round, though, the association protested the seizure of its lorries, calling it arbitrary.

“Till now, we have been extracting water and supply[ing] to many households without permission,” said N Nijalingam, the president of the association. “The government had assured us that they wouldn’t stop us. Now suddenly they are seizing our tankers.”

Before the resolution, Nijalingam said that until the government gave the tankers legal permits to operate without disruption, the lorry owners would remain on strike.

Double-edged sword

This would have been disastrous for residents of South Chennai. By Wednesday, the IT companies were already on the verge of shutting down – implying crores of losses for each day. At the intervention of the National Association of Software and Services Companies, and pressure from residents, a meeting was convened between the district administration and the association. At this meeting, the administration agreed to give the lorry owners a month to procure the required permits for extracting water.

Chengalpet sub-collector Jeyaseelan said the tankers had been let off for now so that the public did not have to suffer, adding that the lorry owners often took recourse to such disruptions to protect themselves. “We are in the position [where] if you are taking stringent action, the public is getting affected,” he said. “So we have to act soft on this issue. Unlike illegal sand or mineral mining, this is a double-edged sword.”

But the administration plans to regulate groundwater resources and is working on bringing in new rules over the next few months. These regulations would be crucial to managing any impending water crisis during the summer months.

And the chances of further disputes arising are high. Groundwater levels across Tamil Nadu have plunged in the past months as a result of two consecutive monsoons of low rainfall. In such a scenario, more tankers may be required to meet Chennai’s water needs this summer.

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India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.