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Vol. XXIX No. 16, December 1-15, 2019

Making Chennai water positive

by Varsha Venugopal

Last month, The Madras Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI) and Urban Thinkers Campus held a two-day convention focused on Making Chennai Water Positive. The meet featured addresses from an assorted panel of experts and dignitaries from corporate, administrative, educational and non-profit sectors, providing attendees with a wide perspective on the challenges involved in resolving Chennai’s water crisis in a sustainable, comprehensive manner. The convention helped throw light on the city’s status quo and scrutinized a multitude of solutions ranging from desalination and water reclamation to policy changes like Maharashtra’s mandated reuse of wastewater for non-potable purposes such as cooling thermal power plants and other industrial uses.

Speaking at the inaugural plenary, Mr. Andrew Rudd, Urban Environment Officer of the UN Habitat, India, pointed out that the past year has underscored the importance of addressing water issues in a holistic and transformative way. He also spoke of the ways in which UN Habitat is working on the issue in Chennai, specifically, the ‘Water as Leverage’ programme, a collaboration between the governments of Tamil Nadu and the Netherlands which aims to diagnose water stresses and generate innovative solutions. Some of the proposed projects for Chennai he highlighted were reinvigorating temple tanks in Mylapore; working with recreation spaces in neighbourhoods to store monsoon water that can be redistributed during drought; rehabilitating the Mambalam canal as a multipurpose public space; and redeveloping the Muttukadu area so water becomes an asset for local development.

The convention comes at a time when Chennai seems to be lulled into contentment following the mitigation of the crippling scarcity it faced just earlier this year. In fact, the current period of the fickle North-East monsoon rains is crucial for the city to recoup its disturbingly low water resources. The convention docket offers a disconcerting statistic: “… the combined full storage capacity of the four city reservoirs at Poondi, Cholavaram, Red Hills and Chembarambakkam is 11,250 million cubic feet (mc feet). The actual storage as of November 5, 2019 was recorded at 2,982 mc feet (i.e) 26.5%. According to Metro water sources, this is sufficient for six months. If further rain is not received, again Chennai would face water scarcity in the summer of 2020’ (sic).

Dr. T. Prabhushankar IAS, Executive Director of CMWSSB, presented a sharp-witted, informative talk on the current status of water supply in Chennai and plans to meet future demand. ‘Somebody called us a great city; we called ourselves the Greater Chennai Corporation,’ he quipped in his opening, going on to acknowledge the severity of the water crisis earlier this year. ‘We were the most unpopular department,’ he said, regretting that Leonardo Di Caprio’s introduction to Chennai came about for an unfortunate reason.

Dr. Prabhushankar’s talk was helpful for the layman seeking to understand Chennai’s water story. He explained that Chennai’s topography is a key reason for most of our flood woes – ‘We’re flat, like a pancake,’ he said. With consumers numbering close to 8 lakh, coastal Chennai has a peak supply capacity of 830 million litres a day and a water treatment capacity of 1,494 million litres a day. Chennai’s water sources are also highly diversified unlike any other city in the country – the city has three major river streams in the Kosasthalaiyar, the Cooum and the Adyar, reservoirs such as Chembarambakkam, Cholavaram, Puzhal and Poondi as well as lakes such as the Veeranam of Ponniyin Selvan fame, which served as a lifeline for citizens in recent times. Chennai also has two desalination plants in Minjur and Nemmeli which supply its second largest source of water; desalination met 35% of our water supply this summer.

Dr. Prabhushankar explained that Chennai owes its water supply challenges to multiple issues, a few of which are:
Chennai has no perennial water sources – a fact many people would want to contest, he admitted.
Chennai depends on a volatile, narrow window of replenishment with the monsoon rainfall – 80% of the city’s annual rainfall happens in a mere 50 days, which is difficult to store.

Chennai suffers from an inequitable distribution of water supply – the difference in usage levels is as stark as people using 1,000 litres a day versus people using 20-30 litres a day.

To tackle pressing water issues, the department is turning to innovative water sources such as quarries at Erumaiyur. These were found to be good reservoirs since the loss of water due to evaporation is minimal due to the relatively small surface area they typically have. The department plans to deepen them and turn them into a flood mitigation resource as well. Further, the water supply network is shifting from a centralized model to a decentralized one which makes use of local sources such as Rettai Eri Lake.

While Dr. Prabhushankar presented the department’s plans to administer and manage water in a more efficient manner, speakers such as Professor Venkatachalam (Madras Institute of Development Studies) also stressed on the need to view water scarcity as a behavioural issue. A lack of incentive to make use of water efficiently in a consistent manner has led to complacency and wastage, he pointed out. The professor described a vicious cycle of events which creates environmental refugees in the city. For instance, Veeranam Lake water diverted to Chennai results in paucity for the farmers in the Veeranam area, which triggers urban migration due to loss of livelihoods, further increasing urban demand. A key water sector reform he proposed was to roll back the electricity subsidy given to farmers, so that the added marginal cost of extracting water necessitates efficient water usage. The professor also recommended including the social cost of water transfer in the pricing mechanism. He referred to the heavy public spending documented on items like alcohol and movies to argue that there is room to rethink whether the public can spend more on water than it is doing right now.

The professor’s ‘behavioural’ approach resonated in quite a few of the speakers. Ms. Sivaranjini Subramanian, AVP of Environmental Management Centre LLP, spoke on the MWRRA’s (Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority) fascinating concept of ‘wastewater recycling credits’ (WRCs), a commodity instrument to incentivise the reuse of treated wastewater above and beyond compliance requirements for urban local bodies and industries. The aim is to maximise the potential of wastewater treatment assets by creating a water-based commodity that can be traded. For instance, a ULB (urban local body) which needs to meet a 35% target but has achieved only 25%, can purchase the additional WRCs from another ULB which has exceeded its targets. Drawing up a quick calculation based on Maharashtra’s current wastewater recycling scenario, Ms. Sivaranjini estimated that 8L WRCs can be traded across Maharashtra alone.

Dr. Umamaheshwaran Rajasekar, Chair, Urban Resilience, National Institute of Urban Affairs, gave a special address at the convention as well. He pointed out that models based on ground hydrology and precipitation of various regions across India showed that despite Chennai’s corrective measures of rejuvenation and rainwater harvesting, the city cannot cater to its water needs in 2030 – it would have to search for sources in far off places. He stressed that reusing water is critical for our city. He also underscored that communication is important to educate and advise the community – for instance, educating realtors on the vulnerability of plots to flooding in heavy rainfall will help them take better decisions and plan for future crises. Dr. Umamaheshwaran also advocated an integrated approach to address water challenges, instead of having multiple institutions such as the municipal corporation, irrigation department, pollution control board, ground water board, etc. A planned, informed approach will help take better decisions, he concluded.

Dr. Jayshree Vencatesan, Managing Trustee of Care Earth Trust, spoke on the topic Restoring Chennai’s Wetlands and Lakes. Choosing to speak to the audience without a presentation, Dr. Jayshree narrated anecdotes and learnings from her experience in working with wetland restoration. She explained that Chennai was a wet city, of meadows and marshes, flat terrains which housed ground-dwelling birds but today, Chennai has lost 65% of its wetland bodies and consequently, the capacity to store water. She said that wetland restoration is arguably burdened by additional expectations from the public. ‘What the majority believe is wetland restoration is different from the work we do’, she rued. She narrated a recent experience, where they planted the bunds with bamboo but the people supporting the project felt cheated; they were expecting a long, spongy variety of grass. When explained that long grasses attracted snakes, they felt that ought to have been informed in advance, and could they please get rid of the snakes? Dr. Jayshree referred to these experiences to stress that, along with commitment and expertise, making Chennai water positive depends on establishing common goals as well. She also warned against the peril of setting human-centric goals without taking into account water-dependent organisms such as fish, on whom our own survival depends.

In all, the convention was a goldmine of information for people interested in learning about Chennai’s water scenario, proposed corrective plans and the challenges involved. The most crucial takeaway was the importance of public education and the need for collective ownership of the problem, even if it meant sacrificing immediate comforts such as subsidised water costs. It is perhaps fitting to end on a positive line from Dr. T. Prabhushankar, CMWSSB, who said, “Chennai will never face day zero. I’m not saying this with arrogance, but confidence… both the government and the non-governmental organisations are working together to see that we’re not just a city with a water secure future but a water positive future.”

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