Almost every day after 7 pm, T Nagamma, 27, leaves her home in Anjaneya Nagar in North Chennai’s Royapuram to fetch water from a hand pump three streets over. Most days, her son, 10, tags along, carrying two small pots on his shoulder. They usually have to wait around an hour for their turn. “This is our only source of water,” said Nagamma. “We use it to drink, cook, wash, clean and bathe.”

By 10 pm, the flow in the hand pump drops to a trickle. But just past 3.30 in the morning, residents return to fill their pots and pitchers. Some sip their morning tea while waiting in the queue.

For three decades, the only source of water in Anjaneya Nagar – which serves a population of around 10,000 people – has been a network of 20 hand pumps. Now, only two are working. “All other hand pumps are defunct,” said KB Kamal, a resident. “A few are broken and rusted, and there is no flow in the rest.”

Adding to the crisis is the fact that groundwater levels have been receding because of deficient rainfall in recent years.

So acute is Chennai’s water scarcity that the city’s water board started rationing water in January, reducing the total daily supply steeply from about 880 million litres a day to 550 million litres a day.

By June, the city will not get any water from its three main sources – Red Hills lake, Poondi reservoir and Cholavaram lake. From May 15, the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board intends to stop drawing water from the Red Hills lake, which supplies the city 90 million litres-120 million litres a day.

Another 50 million litres a day of water from Poondi reservoir will be stopped from May 30,”said a senior water board official who asked not to be identified.

“The water board has already stopped taking water from Cholavaram, which supplies 30 million litres a day, from May 1,” he said. “There is no water, only muck in the lakes. We can’t draw water from these lakes even if we want to.”

T Nagamma, extreme right, fills water from a hand pump in Anjaneya Nagar, Chennai. Photo credit: S Senthalir
T Nagamma, extreme right, fills water from a hand pump in Anjaneya Nagar, Chennai. Photo credit: S Senthalir

To offset the shortfall, the water board plans to tap 180 million litres a day from Veeranam lake. It is also seeking to exploit groundwater sources.

The water board’s executive engineer, D Lakshmi, said they will extract water from quarries and farmland wells in neighbouring districts to supply Chennai. “We have already started supplying 40 million litres of water to the city from Chikkarayapuram and Yerumayur quarries,” he said.

The board is working on increasing its supply from groundwater sources from 15 million litres per day to 120 million litres over the next month. “There are already 4,116 hand pumps in the city,” said Lakshmi. “We will be erecting 358 more to tap groundwater in all 15 zones within the Chennai city limits.”

Where borewells have run dry, the board is supplying water through its fleet of 750 tankers. “The number of water lorries will be increased depending on public demand,” said Lakshmi.

T Nagamma's son accompanies her to the hand pump most days. Photo credit: S Senthalir
T Nagamma's son accompanies her to the hand pump most days. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Not enough water

When the reservoirs are full, usually after the monsoon, the water board supplies up to 880 million litres of water a day in Chennai. In times of drought, the daily supply is cut to around 550 million litres.

“It is insufficient to meet the demand of the city’s one crore population,” noted Haris Sultan SA, organiser of the non-profit Arappor Iyakkam’s Water Management Group. “They are finding it difficult to supply even this much water.”

In addition to piped water, the board supplies water through tankers for domestic use, charging Rs 475 for 6,000 litres, Rs 700 for 9,000 litres, and Rs 1,200 for 16,000 litres. “In the city’s poor neighbourhoods water is supplied through tankers free of cost,” said D Lakshmi, the water board’s executive engineer.

Sultan estimated that Chennai actually requires at least 2,000 million litres of water per day. So, there is always demand for more than the water board can supply, even when it is operating at full capacity. Some of this shortfall is met by private tankers, which in turn are dependent on groundwater for their supply.

Residents wait their turn to fill water from a hand pump in Royapettah. Photo credit: S Senthalir
Residents wait their turn to fill water from a hand pump in Royapettah. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Private water supply

There are at least 4,500 private water tankers in Chennai, according to the Tamil Nadu Private Water Lorry Owners’ Association. A lorry can carry 12,000 litres to 36,000 litres of water.

The demand for private tankers has increased by around 50% this summer, said N Nijalingam, president of the association. “Nearly 30% to 40% of the households with three to four members are now purchasing water from us,” he added.

The tanker owners pay a small amount to people whose land they take groundwater from. Today’s going rate is Rs 100 to draw 12,000 litres of water. It is an unregulated trade even though the lorry owners’ association had approached the government in October 2018 to license private tankers and declare water an essential commodity.

To supply Chennai, private tankers mostly drew groundwater in and around Mambakkam, 20 km away in Kancheepuram. In the past few years, however, indiscriminate use has sent groundwater levels in these areas plummeting. Now, lorries are forced to travel over 50 km from the city to fetch water from wells of distressed farmers.

“We used to make five trips a day to fetch water from sources around 20 km away from the city,” said Nijalingam. “Now we are able to make just three trips a day. In places where we were supplying 10 loads of water earlier, we are sending only seven. It is difficult to find water sources. Our customers understand the difficulties we are facing and they volunteer to pay for diesel. The cost of the extra distance travelled is borne by the customers.”

Now, though, even farmers are opposing the exploitation of their groundwater. “We used to get water at under 100 feet,” said a farmer in Perumbakkam, Kancheepuram, who did not want to be identified. “Now, we don’t find water even after 200 feet.”

Nijalingam confirmed this. “There is a lot of opposition from villagers to our taking water,” he said. “They say we are depriving them of water in order to supply to the cities. We sometimes seek protection from the police and try to take local residents into confidence.”

A private water in Perumbakkam, Kancheepuram. Photo credit: S Senthalir
A private water in Perumbakkam, Kancheepuram. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Skewed water distribution

Private tankers have served to further skew Chennai’s water distribution system. “There’s no equitable distribution of water,” rued Nagamma. “If we had money, it would be easier to get additional metro lorries by bribing officials.”

A study conducted in 2004 by A Vaidyanathan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and J Saravanan, then with the Centre for Science and Environment, found that Chennai’s poorer households depend far more on the water board’s limited supply than the rich.

“Poorer groups meet more than 50% of their daily requirement from public supply and the percentage of dependency decreases in higher income groups,” they found. In contrast, 79% of high income groups “depend more on own well sources and the dependency on bottled water is also more” among them.

Most of the people living in apartments and standalone houses received piped water on alternate days and made up the shortfall from their wells. That was until January, when the city’s wells started drying up. They then turned to the metro water board’s tankers for help, cutting into the share of the poor.

By the start of May, piped water was being supplied only once in five days, forcing many of the high income households to spend around Rs 2,600 a week to purchase water from both metro and private tankers. Sometimes, it is done in underhanded ways. “We have received complaints from staff at the metro water filling points that they are being forced to supply water to unauthorised water tankers,” said Jeyaram Venkatesan, founder of Arappor Iyakkam.

The water board has 41 filling points across the city to supply its 750 tankers. Since the lorries cannot go inside the narrow streets of poor neighbourhoods, they fill up static tanks placed near street junctions. “Only authorised tankers can take water from filling points,” Jeyaram said. “And when unauthorised tankers are allowed they take the share of water intended for the poor localities to fill up storage sumps of the rich.”

Static tanks placed by the water board in Hussain Nagar, Chennai. Photo credit: S Senthalir
Static tanks placed by the water board in Hussain Nagar, Chennai. Photo credit: S Senthalir

Apathetic state apparatus

In every locality, a resident is put in charge of supplying water from the static tanks, which have a capacity of 3,000 litres each, “at a time convenient to most people”. “We have to constantly call the water board until we receive our supply for the day,” said M Hyder in Royapeetahin, Central Chennai. “They fill up our tanks in the morning or sometimes in the evening.”

Hyder complained the amount of water they get is too little. “The 300 families in this locality have to do with just 3,000 litres,” he said. “We have to make do with just three or four pots of water per family. Sometimes water is available only after 7 pm. So, I complete my household chores at night and take a bath only after that.”

In places such as Anjaneya Nagar, there are no functional static tanks. “A static tank was placed on the 8th street junction in 2014 but they stopped filling it up after only three months,” said Kamal. “It was abandoned without maintenance.”

Though a metro water tanker still visits Anjaneya Nagar every other day, Kamal said it has “no fixed schedule”. “Only those who are around at that time and are free fetch water directly from the tanker. Others have to wait until the next visit.”

People in Anjaneya Nagar have been demanding piped water for many years now, said Nagamma, “but nothing has been done yet”. “They give us lame excuses every time we ask them,” she added. “This is not a high-profile area, so we do not exist for them. The rich have several options to choose from unlike us.”

Sultan also blamed the water board for neglecting the poor. “When private water lorry owners can supply water, why is the water board struggling?” he questioned.

He accused the state government of not “taking measures to safeguard water bodies” and harvest rainwater. “There is no space in the city for rainwater to percolate down because of concrete structures and asphalted roads,” he rued. “Even the storm drains have turned into concrete structures.”

Chennai has 32 small natural canals and one that is man made. “The city receives an average rainfall of 1,400 mm and we can tap at least 21 thousand million cubic feet of rainwater,” said Sultan. “There is no official data on how much groundwater is being recharged or how well rainwater harvesting is being done. The government lacks any preparedness to tackle flood or drought.”

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