Prominently displayed on the website of the Chennai Metro Water and Sewerage Board is a couplet from a treatise called Thirukkural written more than 2,000 years ago by Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar: “Neerindru Amaiyaadhu Ulakenin Yaaryaarkkum Vaanindru Amaiyaadhu Ozhukku.”

Scholar GU Pope translates this couplet thus: “If it be said that the duties of life cannot be discharged by any person without water, so without rain there cannot be the flowing of water.”

The kural has perfect resonance in Chennai, which is gripped bya severe water crisis that has profoundly hampered the daily lives of its residents.

The state government has blamed the crisis on the failure of the monsoon for two consecutive years. Chief Minister E Palaniswamy has claimed a good spell of rain would ease the water shortage. Last week, the government held special prayers and rituals to please the rain gods.

This sparked criticism from the Opposition, which accused the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government of failing to manage the state’s water resources adequately.

Serious questions have been raised about what the government is doing to meet the water demands of the city.

The municipal administration department has claimed water is being supplied from water-filled stone quarries and desalination plants around Chennai. But the large quarry at Sikkarayapuram, a few kilometres from the Chembarambakkam lake, ran dry in June. Even the farm wells that the government was using to tap groundwater have dried up.

The government also announced that, after a gap of 18 years, trains will be pressed into service to transport water to the city from another district.

But even with these claims, there seems to be a yawning gap between the demand and the supply. The decision to transport water from outside the city also raises a disconcerting question: is the government prioritising Chennai at the cost of residents in the rest of Tamil Nadu?

Cauvery conundrum

Chennai’s total water requirement is about 830 million litres a day. The government claims that it is now supplying about 530 million litres a day. The city receives water from four primary reservoirs: Puzhal, Chembarambakkam, Cholavaram and Poondi. All four are on the verge of going dry.

Satellite images show Chembarambakkam reservoir shrinking from June 2018 to June 2019

In addition, Chennai gets Cauvery river water through the Veeranam lake in Cuddalore district, about 250 km south. This year, however, the lake is bone dry. The Mettur dam in Salem district, where Cauvery enters the state and which feeds river water into the lake, has remained closed.

Despite Supreme Court orders, Tamil Nadu has found it difficult to obtain its share of water from the Cauvery river as Karnataka has refused to open the sluices, pointing to its own water scarcity. Over the last month, the Cauvery Water Management Authority has met four times and has failed to coax Karnataka to supply water to Tamil Nadu.

This dwindling water supply has damaged agriculture in the Cauvery delta over the last decade, with farmers giving up on the once-bountiful summer kuruvai paddy crop. For the eighth consecutive year, the Mettur dam has not been opened on the traditional date of June 12.

This shortfall has not stopped the Tamil Nadu government from deepening the state’s dependence on the Cauvery even for drinking water purposes. The proposal of the government to bring water by train to Chennai from Jolarpettai in Vellore district is the latest example of this trend. The town is located about 220 km west of Chennai. It depends on a Cauvery-based drinking water scheme for its own needs.

According to officials, infrastructure in the form of pipes and pumps is being put in place on a war footing in and around the Jolarpettai area to fill train wagons and send the water to Chennai. The government is hoping to provide Chennai 10 million litres of water per day through these wagons. The last time such a move was implemented was in 2001, when the government brought water to Chennai all the way from Erode district, 400 km away.

Protests in other places

Vellore in north Tamil Nadu, along with the southern district of Ramanathapuram, is considered among the driest of areas in the state. The news that the government is planning to divert water meant for Vellore has prompted protests from local politicians. Last week, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam deputy general secretary Durai Murugan warned of massive agitations if the AIADMK government went ahead with the project.

There is no clarity from the government on exactly where in Jolarpettai it will tap water from. Officials have inspected storage tanks in Kethandapatti and Mettusakkarakuppam villages but there is no confirmation on whether these are the sites from where water will be taken.

Officials to whom spoke were unwilling to confirm whether the water will come from the Hoggenakal falls in Dharmapuri, about 350 km from Chennai, and then be transported using trains from Jolarpettai. Questions sent to the Chennai Metro Water Board and the Municipal Administration and Water Supply department went unanswered.

However, this raises a serious question: if 10 to 15 million litres of water is diverted from other areas to Chennai, what would those areas do for water?

Short-term measures

S Janakarajan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, an expert in water management, said almost 70% of Tamil Nadu now depends on the Cauvery for its drinking water needs. If more of the river water is diverted to Chennai, it would be at the cost of other areas.

Instead of exploring long-term remedial measures, the government spends substantial resources every year on temporary fixes such as the Jolarpettai project, he said. Even the de-silting of water bodies, on which the government claims to have spent thousands of crores of rupees, must be done in a scientific way, not merely as a face-saving ritual.

“I would like to know if they have done a detailed project report and scientific studies before undertaking de-silting,” Janakarajan said. “There was 30 mm rain in Chennai on Wednesday. But have we taken measures to say categorically that this rainwater has been saved?”