Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Pitcher imperfect

"In 20 years, this is the first time I am seeing a Metro water tanker entering our street for supplying water,’ says Rajesh, a resident of West Saidapet waiting in the queue in the dead of night a couple of days back. However, this is not just the case of Rajesh but the voice of a cross-section of Chennai’s population, experiencing the worst water scarcity in two decades.

Rajesh, who is residing in Saidpet for over two and a half decades, told me, "We never thought we will have to wait like this, losing the sleep, for water. Until a month back, water was not a big issue for us. But, now it is all we want."

Truth is that there are many more Rajeshes in Chennai city running behind water lorries of the Metro Water department. I recently caught up with some of the residents, in the middle of night and the wee hours of the day, waiting for the supply through tankers. I too have been experiencing all this along with my fellow roommates in our bachelor-home at West Saidapet in Chennai.

Residents waiting to fetch water from metro water tanker lorry in West Saidapet
Coming back, Rajesh claimed that it is all because of the booming population. Pointing to two buildings opposite his house, he said each building has 26 nuclear families each of which require at least 200 to 250 litres of water a day.

"In this situation, how can the groundwater be sufficient?" Sampath, one of my roommates asked rhetorically. By then, a horde of families came running out with empty water cans. While he was talking to me, at least a score of men and women were ahead of us in the queue, each carrying two pitchers as per the token despatched by Metro Water authorities.

From my personal experience being a 'budding-Chennaiite' for last six months, I have witnessed a drastic change in the availability of water. When I first came here, water was available in abundance. But, now we have to switch on our motor every hour, that too only for five minutes.

After that the underground water level goes down and the motor gets air locked. As I was raised in fertile towns like Nagercoil and Tiruchi, in my lifetime, I have never fetched even a bucket of water from a water tanker. This is one of the worst scenarios I am in literally.

Later I had an opportunity to interact with S Kannappan, driver of a Metro Water tanker, who said, ‘This is my 20th trip since morning. And we still have to cover two more areas and it’s already 1 am.’ He said the water was heavily chlorinated.

"Usually it takes a couple of hours for the chlorine to react well with the water until which it is not good to supply for public usage. But, as the demand has skyrocketed, we do not have sufficient buffer time to allow the chlorine to react.", he said.

So, the water supplied by tankers has a raw chlorine stench which I could feel the next day during bath. "I could see people carrying whatever vessel they have in their kitchen. Even the water cans which have very narrow mouth are being bought by them. Despite feeling sorry for them, I have to yell at everyone as it is not possible to fill the water through such a narrow mouth", Kannappan added.

Dipping groundwater level

Following my personal experience, I skimmed at certain documents available with the Metro water board. Based on a recent study taken up by Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB), comparing the average water level in 15 areas in and around Chennai city during May 2016 and May 2017, it was found that that there is a fall in the range of 0.97 metres to 2.92 metres below ground level.

Later I contacted some sources from the CMWSSB who said it was also found that the groundwater across Tamil Nadu has a deficit of -61 per cent and for Chennai alone, the deficit is around -23 per cent. The board also constantly monitors groundwater level and quality (TDS) every month through a network of 145 observation wells spread across 426 square kilometres.

The maximum decline was in Valasaravakkam where the depletion level went down from 1.12 metres to 3.70 metres (-2.58 metres), while Sholinganallur witnessed the lowest dip from 0.65 metre to 1.62 metres (-0.97 metres).

Borewells bother

"The drastic increase in temperature has caused the groundwater levels to dip. There is also a possibility that the water quality will take a hit," a citybased geologist briefed me, adding that the increase in temperature would change the nature of soil and affect water quality.

When I asked him about the reason for this sudden drop, he said, "It is not a one-ended problem as there are a lot of causes - both natural and manmade. Rise in temperature, intrusion of seawater into land and many others. However, the most hazardous cause is the usage of borewells."

He said the Corporation has simplified the process of drilling a borewell for domestic need. "All one needs to do is pay a DD for Rs 2,000 and they are allowed to drill a borewell anywhere within a 10 feet radius of their compound," he detailed.

With this, the number of borewells in the city has been increasing as every other house has one, he pointed out. The only hope the geologist could hold out was, "We have to wait until the monsoon during which the groundwater level will go up. There is nothing else we can do till then."

The remedy

In the midst of all this an attempt to tackle a probable water scarcity, the city’s Metro Water Department had already started a measure to cater to the needs of Chennaiites. It may be noted that a failed monsoon last year has meant that the sources of drinking water for the city are facing depleting storage levels.

Keeping all that in mind, officials of Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board (CMWSSB) earlier this March got together with technical experts from premier academic institutions in the city to identify rock quarries across the suburbs where pure water is found stagnant.

The team tested the water samples from these quarries to find if they are fit for drinking purposes. So far, the team has identified as many as 31 quarries in the suburbs including Pammal, Nanmangalam, Thiruneermalai and Mangadu. They had been camping at these minor water bodies to collect samples for testing. The quality of the water was tested with the help of experts from King’s Institute, Guindy and the Department of Geology, College of Engineering, Guindy.

It was estimated that at least 2,500 million cubic feet of water could be sourced from these quarries if they are fit for drinking. Further, the hydrographics of the water was analysed by the experts. In an effort to identify water sources in quarries, faculty of the Civil Engineering department of MGR Engineering College was also helping the team.

Regarding this, a top official from Metrowater at that time told me, “The complete process is still in the analysis phase and we are hopefully waiting for a positive response from the inferences of the test. If they are found to be fit for drinking purposes, the water sources from the quarries would be linked to the existing network of Chembarambakam to supply to the city and suburbs”.

He also said that, the city needs around 550 million cubic feet of water a day for its use and so the 2500 million litres would be helpful for Metrowater to manage for at least a week’s time. This method is expected to be a remedy for time being to help people out of this scarcity, believe Metro water authorities. Well, we too hope so!

- Santhosh Mathevan,
Chennai, June 14, 2017.

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