Once again, Chennai’s chronic water stress has tipped over into crisis, making international news. But for the city’s residents, the condition is all but habitual. The current drought has been caused by two consecutive failed monsoons and decades of mismanagement. This year’s crisis follows closely on the heels of the 2017 drought, which was itself regarded as historic, and followed the international-news-making floods of late 2015.

“We keep having water crises every five years at least since the 1990s,” said MR Jaishankar, executive engineer in Chennai’s water utility, Metrowater. “But this one is the worst so far.” In this tightening cycle of droughts and floods, the city’s centralised water system generates more problems than solutions. Its supply-oriented ethos has reduced Chennai’s residents to passively waiting, hoping and coping.

The drought is experienced in starkly uneven ways across the city. At my workplace, accounts of water stress vary widely by geography, class and household water infrastructure.

Manivannan, a research assistant, lives off the IT Expressway that runs south from the city, hosting a mix of middle-class and luxury housing. Houses here have not yet been connected to the city supply, and have relied for years on weekly supplies from municipal tankers. Now these tankers take three weeks to arrive, forcing him to buy water from private tankers at three times the cost.

Azhargarsamy, an accountant, lives in the western suburb of Tambaram. “We are not connected to municipal water, so we usually rely on borewells,” he said. “In January when our well went dry, I began drawing from the neighbouring block. In March, I had to move to the next street, then two streets away, where fights broke out. Now I travel half an hour by bike every morning and then wait in line to bring five pots of water home. I have sent my parents away to the village, and am moving house to escape this situation.”

But in elite neighbourhoods like Besant Nagar, residents had water on tap all day even in late June.

Residents line up to fill water from a hand pump in Chennai. Credit: P Ravikumar/Reuters

The unequal spread of scarcity in the city is largely attributable to the structure of its piped water system. Assembled in phases by the colonial government from 1876, the system was designed to convey water to the city from two rain-fed lakes, Red Hills and Cholavaram, about 25 km northwest of the city. Early distribution line prioritised supply to the residential neighborhoods of the colonial elite.

Later, the Corporation of Madras rationalised the network to effect equitable distribution and access for all city residents. From the 1980s, the utility, removed from the city government and reconstituted as a parastatal, spent billions of rupees on repairing, refurbishing and extending the grid to cover unserved areas and to equalise pipe pressure across the urban territory.

But the system is premised on adequate and steady supplies of water. When flows are low, large swathes of the city, positioned at the tail-end of distribution lines, remain unserved, while those closer to sources or headworks receive plenty. Informal settlements of the urban poor are often, though not always, located at the tail ends of the system. Thus, their pipes are among the first to run dry during droughts, forcing them to line up on streets for water from tankers.

Off the grid

In addition, large parts of Chennai remain unconnected to the pipe grid. In 2011, Chennai expanded its municipal boundaries from 174 sq km to 426 sq km. Most of the newly incorporated areas, including elite enclaves on the IT Corridor and poorer settlements on the peripheries, are still waiting for connections to the municipal water system.

These lines of discrimination are compounded by the operation of social power, where elites exert influence on local water managers to send flows their way.

Centralised water grids are singularly supply-focused. Chennai’s population grew from over 4 million in 2001 to nearly 8 million in 2011, doubling its water demand. As droughts recurred through the 2000s, Metrowater launched several large and costly projects to augment supply, including two inter-basin transfer projects that conveyed water to Chennai from distances of up to 400 km, and two desalination plants of 100 mld each.

In their preoccupation with increasing supplies, Chennai’s water managers have paid scant attention to the sustainability of their sources.

In 2003, Metrowater purchased water from 75 agricultural wells in farms near Chennai to supply the city. By 2018, private businesses were supplying about 20,000 tanker loads a day of groundwater extracted from farmlands around Chennai. Supply to the metropolis has come at a high cost to its neighboring towns and villages, depleting their aquifers, parching their lands and sparking conflicts among farmers.

Two-thirds of Chennai’s households have sunk their own borewells. Combined with commercial tankers and packaged drinking water supplies, these “solutions” have caused an 85 percent decline in its groundwater levels over the last decade.

Centralised urban water systems also disconnect people from their sources and turn citizens into consumers of ready-made water. The transmission mains, distribution lines and taps that serve Chennai’s residents render invisible the lakes that feed these pipes and the shifting ecology of rains, rivers, dams, smaller lakes and channels that feed the lakes.

Jaishankar from Metrowater described attempts to revive this connection: “To me, the only solution is to decentralise the source. So I tried something. In 2017, I installed a small treatment plant in Porur lake [a large reservoir on Chennai’s southwestern edge] and started supplying to the surrounding neighborhoods. We created local supply from a local source, to make local people feel responsible for their water source and its maintenance. We are going to try this in three more lakes.” He was also pushing for water from sewage treatment plants to be let into the lakes.

But decentralised supply and wastewater reuse are not new ideas in Chennai. The urgency of demand management, conservation, harvesting and recharge were officially recognised in Metrowater in the 1980s. In 2003, Tamil Nadu became a national leader in mandating rainwater harvesting in all houses. However, a 2015 audit in Chennai by the NGO Rain Center found that large numbers of rainwater harvesting systems, including in government buildings, were poorly implemented or maintained.

Leadership changes at various levels of the water service have slid the system back into a default supply mode.

A coherent water policy is urgently needed to redirect the focus of water managers toward long-term water security by closing the water loop and reconnecting urban consumers with their water sources. Without this, the slow build-up of crises into disaster is a certainty.

Karen Coelho is an Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, who focuses on reforms in municipal governance, informal labour, urban ecologies and urban civil society.