On a hot June afternoon in Kaatukuppam, a fishing hamlet in the North Chennai neighbourhood of Ennore, residents waited impatiently for the Chennai MetroWater tanker to arrive with their weekly supply. It was supposed to have reached them at 7 am and they had been standing for over five hours, plastic buckets in hand.

“We get water from the tanker only once a week these days,” complained L Srinivasan, a fisherman. “We used to receive water twice or thrice a week some months ago. Now, even our public taps have run dry.”

The situation in Kaatukuppam is no different from that in any other part of Chennai, where a water crisis is worsening by the day. Regular supply of drinking water to the city has been slashed by 50% in the wake of Tamil Nadu’s worst drought in 140 years. For a city that requires around 830 million litres of water a day, only half the amount is being supplied, reported NDTV. According to the Times of India, the daily supply of 420 million litres to 470 million litres at present has, in fact, come down from 500 million litres a day just a few weeks ago.

The failure of both the South West and North East Monsoons last year led to water levels in Tamil Nadu’s reservoirs plunging. As of April 20 this year, the state had 81% less water in its reservoirs than its 10-year average.

The four main lakes that supply piped water to Chennai – Poondi, Red Hills, Cholavaram and Chembarambakkam – are nearly dry.

Credit: Chennai MetroWater
Credit: Chennai MetroWater

Sparse rainfall in June has done little to restore the city’s depleting groundwater levels. Chennai MetroWater officials are on the lookout for alternative sources of water to make up for the supply crunch.

Desperate search for water

Even before the onset of summer, it was anticipated that there would be great difficulty in maintaining regular water supply to Chennai. When water levels in the four lakes fall, MetroWater usually taps into the Veeranam lake in Cuddalore district to make up for the shortfall. But this large lake has also run dry. This prompted MetroWater officials to extract water from the Wallajah lake, also in Cuddalore. But the use of these rural lakes to meet urban needs has infuriated farmers in the district, who say they are being deprived of their water resources.

“We have lived by this lake for decades,” M Anbazhagan, a farmer, told Scroll.in on May 1. “We were not even consulted or informed about our water being directed to Chennai.”

To meet Chennai’s needs, MetroWater has also been extracting 30 million litres of water a day from stone quarries in Kancheepuram district. Other primary sources of water are two desalination plants (which remove salt and other minerals from seawater to make it fit for drinking) in Nemmeli and Minjur and agricultural fields in Tiruvallur. In addition, it has deployed an extra 300 tankers across the city. But all these measures are not nearly enough.

Tanker trouble

In Chennai’s poorer neighbourhoods where access to regular water supply is rare, MetroWater has ramped up free water supply through tankers by 40%, reported The Times of India. This means that residents who use its paid dial-in service have to wait longer than the usual one week to get their tankers.

“For 22 flats in our complex, we waited for three days to get a MetroWater tanker of just 6,000 litres,” said Ilangovan Rajasekaran, a resident of Kodambakkam in western Chennai. “There is not a drop of water in our borewells.”

In another apartment complex on Greams Road in central Chennai, residents waited for over a week but the water tanker they had ordered did not come. They said it was only when they make calls to “influential persons” that the tanker arrived.

With the demand for tankers skyrocketing and MetroWater able to meet only half of the city’s needs, residents are turning to private tankers. But these, too, are struggling to find water. Tankers are now traveling greater distances within Chennai to extract water, often illegally. This has led to frequent clashes with revenue officials in various districts.

“We can only supply as much water as we can,” said E Elumalai of the South Chennai Private Water Lorries Association. “We are asking people to use water carefully. In many borewells where we used to get 10 loads of water, each of 12,000 litres, we are now only able to get five or six loads.”

Residents accuse private tankers of taking advantage of the crisis and raising their rates, up to Rs 1,800 for 6,000 litres – though Elumalai insists this is not true. “Some of us are even ready to pay the money,” said Kodambakkam resident Rajasekaran. “But it is still so difficult to get a water tanker.”