With Chennai authorities cutting the city’s daily water supply by half in the face of a crippling drought, residents are finding innovative ways to conserve the scarce liquid – from installing bricks in their flush tanks to attaching filters to their taps to reduce their flow.

The city’s water shortage is a consequence of Tamil Nadu’s worst drought in 140 years. Most lakes have run dry and water levels in reservoirs have plunged drastically. The crunch has led to a huge demand for water tankers, which are being operated both by the official Chennai MetroWater board and private entities. But even this has proved insufficient. The municipality has added 300 tankers to its regular fleet but for some residents, the wait for a tanker could be a week, if not longer.

As a result, many Chennai residents have been finding new ways to avoid wasting what little water they get. To help them do so, new products such as kitchen aerators are making their way into the market. In addition, residents are attempting to reuse water, such as storing the water in which they’ve washed their clothes to flush their toilets.

Water-saving devices

One day recently, in an apartment block in South Chennai’s Thiruvanmiyur neighbourhood, building manager M Moorthy was inspecting several kitchen aerators – small cylindrical devices with two layers of filters that reduce the amount of water coming out of a tap. The device must be inserted into the mouth of the tap and screwed in tight.

“Our building is suffering from water problems, so we have purchased these caps to fit in the kitchen taps of every apartment,” he said. “People tend to waste a lot of water while washing vessels.”

Peeyush Kothari, cofounder of Eco365, which manufactures and sells all kinds of water-saving devices in India, including the kitchen aerators, said business was good. “We get bulk orders from builders and construction companies for our devices to be fitted,” he said. “We are getting a lot more orders for our devices now since people are growing more aware of water scarcity. This is going to become a much bigger problem in the years to come.”

Regular tap nozzles (left) and Eco365's kitchen aerator (right). (Credit: Vinita Govindarajan)

In addition to the kitchen tap aerator, Kothari said that many customers are also trying other products, such as the bio-enzyme urinal cake – which eliminates the need for a flush in urinals for men.

Another device, called a green toilet bank, is a corollary to the old household practice of keeping a brick inside the the flush tank. To limit the amount of water from being used during flushing, a toilet bank is placed inside the tank so that it does not fill up to its full capacity. This means that each flush uses a smaller quantity of water.

Saving every drop

A familiar sight these days in Chennai, especially in poorer neighbourhoods, is people waiting for Chennai MetroWater tankers, carrying bright plastic buckets and pots.

The water crisis has led to a surge in the demand for large buckets, according to M Senthil, whose store in South Chennai deals in plastic goods. He sells the buckets at Rs 450 a piece. In addition, he sells 20-30 plastic pots a week for Rs 100 each, making a profit of Rs 30 on each.

“The bigger buckets are a fast-moving item now, especially among slum-dwellers,” Senthil said. “Everyone wants these buckets to collect and store as much water as possible when water tankers pass through their area.”

In these colonies, residents also collect waste water, from activities such as washing clothes, to use in their toilets. “In apartment complexes, more water than necessary is used for flushing,” said G Sholagarajan, a carpenter. “In houses like mine, we use only waste water for flushing.”

The demand for larger buckets has gone up with the crunch in water supply. (Credit: Vinita Govindarajan)

But in the apartment buildings too, some residents are putting waste water to good use. Kalyani Parthsarathy, a homemaker, said reverse osmosis water filters waste a lot of water during the treatment process, but this waste water can be collected and used for washing dishes or watering plants.

Another resident, Abishek Narayan, who is pursuing a postgraduate degree in water management, pointed out that many households that use semi-automatic washing machines let their taps run while filling these up. “They move on to do their work until they remember that the tap is on,” he said. “A simple mechanical timer or an alarm on your smartphone would save tens of litres of water easily by closing the tap when the required amount of water is filled in the washing drum.”

Realising that the water crisis may pose more problems in future, architects in Chennai have taken to using innovative designs to conserve water. Thirupurasundari Sevvel, for instance, uses porous or perforated material in place of concrete in the exterior areas of most of her projects so that rainwater can be easily absorbed into the ground, thereby allowing groundwater recharge.

“Earlier, we had sand or mud around the house,” she said. “Then came the need for car parking, which demanded concrete floors and minimised the amount of open land per plot. Thus, this small change a few years back reduced the issue and we now have a win-win situation.”

As Sevvel put it, “These are basic things that are simple and can be applied everywhere.”

However, even as some residents and builders in Chennai are making an effort to conserve water, not everyone seems seized of the urgency of the drought. Enayathullah, owner of the Enayath plumbing and electrical store in South Chennai, said many builders buy luxury bathroom items from him for their new projects. “The luxury showerheads are more water-intensive than the regular showerheads,” he explained. “When builders are moving towards fitting such appliances, how will they spare a thought for water conservation?”

Perforated concrete slabs allow rainwater to seep into the earth and recharge the ground water. (Credit: Thirupurasundari Sevvel)