A woman strains to lift a full water jug back to her home in the Ayanavaram neighborhood of Chennai, India.
City water trucks drive through Chennai’s neighborhoods every other day to deliver the residents’ main source of clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Each household receives about 10 gallons of water.
After lower levels of monsoon rains and poor water management, Chennai joined the global trend of cities almost hitting ‘Day Zero’ and running out of water.
Like these men, many commuters prefer motorcycles and mopeds to navigate Chennai’s traffic clogged streets.
More than 8 million people live in the city of Chennai. It’s India’s hub for information technology and car manufacturing industries, which have drawn massive growth to the city.
“The city has grown out of proportion. We keep extending the limits of the city,” said Shanta Sheela Nair, former chairperson and managing director of the city’s water utility.
Nair said the rapid urbanization contributes to the city’s continuing water supply struggle. Concrete and pavement over wetlands block rainwater absorption into the ground leading to extreme flooding during the monsoon.
The Under-Told Stories Project team shoots an interview with Nityanand Jayaraman (third right), an environmental activist in Chennai.
They are standing on wetlands that have shrunk due to construction and developments in the IT corridor.
Jayaraman stated that the continuing growth has disturbed the hydrology of the city. Meanwhile, the government looks to quick technological fixes.
“You’re blessed with the landscape with this kind of marshlands, which automatically recharge your groundwater and give you cheap water at your doorstep with absolutely no need for any built infrastructure, no need for the utility. That’s the cheapest and the wisest way to do it,” Jayaraman said. “But to destroy this and construct buildings, then you’re making yourself vulnerable to floods.”
Chennai Metro Water trucks are filled with potable water before heading out into the city neighborhoods.
Since the tap water is not as clean, residents rely on city water trucks, private tankers and ground water collection. Those with higher income are are able to afford access to more water from private suppliers.
“When you say per capita, it does not mean equity. There are large populations at the tail end areas of the system, especially the slum populations, which are getting maybe 20 liters per capita when somebody else is getting 300 liters per capita. So you get an average of 80 or 90 or hundred liters per capita, but that does not speak of the stress areas,” Nair said.
Under-Told Stories Project Executive Director and Correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro interviews Vaidehi Rajasekaran, district engineer for Chennai Metro Water.
The city has encouraged households to increase rainwater collection through media promotion and information pamphlets.
“Definitely people have improved (their rainwater harvesting). They have suffered through May, June, July months,” Rajasekaran said “They’re realizing the importance of it.”
Boats sit on the shore of the Bay of Bengal.
Along with encouraging rainwater collection, the city has turned to the ocean as the primary solution for the city’s water shortage.
Two desalination plants opened in Minjur and Nemmeli. Both can process 100 million liters of drinking water. Many critics, such as Jayaraman and Nair, say the plants are an expensive solution and can have detrimental environmental impacts.
The Nemmeli Seawater Desalination Plant shares the beach front with a fishing community on the Bay of Bengal.
Since the plant was built in 2013, nearby communities allege the constant discharge of highly salinated water on the shores kills plankton and other organisms that support fish species.
Villager Gopi Gajendran said there are less fish by the coast since the plant opened, and he must take his motorized boat about six kilometers from shore to catch fish. Other villagers say those without a motorized boat are left in the lurch.
Hundreds of racks of pipes inside the reverse osmosis building of the Nemmeli Seawater Desalination Plant automatically process water from the bay.
The Nemmeli plant has the capacity to produce 100 million liters of drinking water per day.
“Two desalination plants available in the city are acting as a backbone to give a steady supply and reliable supply of water,” said Syed Amir Bashal, chief technology officer desalination operations at Nemmeli desalination plant.
Under-Told Stories Project Executive Director and Correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro interviews T. Prabushankar, executive director of Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board.
Along with desalinating ocean water, the city also collects groundwater and surface water from four main reservoirs and re-uses wastewater. Some activists blame the government for the city’s water shortage issues and believe it needs to manage the water resources better. Prabushankar added: “The crux of it is that government is certainly a major stakeholder when it regards to ensuring the water security but then a major responsibility should be on the people themselves. People certainly can be a part of the solution rather than just asking the one stakeholder to solve the crisis.”
Finding the right balance and mix for a sustainable solution will continue to be the challenge.
“I believe that we need to have a multi pronged approach the sources of water are groundwater, surface water, rainwater and to some extent recycled water and we need to make a match of all these sources to be able to sustainably handle the situation of providing water supply to the city,” Nair said.