Solving Chennai’s Water Crisis

This is the first article in a three-part series on the Indian city Chennai and its struggle with rapid urban development. The second part will be published next week.

By Kavitha Rajagopalan

Water has a special place in the lives and rituals of the people of Chennai, a city in Southern India. Years ago, worshipers bathed in the Cooum River, one of four waterways running through the city’s center. With this tradition in mind, it is hard to imagine that the city suffers chronic water shortages.

According to a June 2011 report in The Hindu newspaper, the Water Resources Department said that the total surface area of 19 of the city’s larger lakes had shrunk from 1,130 hectares to 645. And although Metrowater, the city’s official water supply department, says that encroachments on bodies of water have been halted since 1998, media outlets reported major construction projects on and alongside waterways and lakes in 2004, 2007 and 2013.

Until recently, these encroachments on rivers were commonly associated with the construction of slums. This is why every major waterway cleanup project has been kicked off, to great fanfare, with a series of slum evictions. But a growing number of experts – many of whom former government engineers – point out that large-scale formal development impacts the long-term health of the city’s water bodies the most.

In fact, according to the environmental group Exnora International, slum residents’ waste accounts for just 0.14% of Chennai’s river pollution. High-rise buildings and raised expressways not only pollute at a much grander scale than flimsy, single-story homes made of tin, thatch and hand-laid bricks, they also sink cement and steel foundations deep into the riverbed, barricading water and waste into stagnant pools and contaminating groundwater throughout the city. As water bodies shrink beneath buildings and the waste their inhabitants generate, only 5% of Chennai’s abundant annual rainfall makes its way into the groundwater supply, and the ever-growing population becomes more and more dependent on water from outside the city.

In a 2007 essay, S. Janakarajan, John Butterworth, Patrick Moriarty and Charles Batchelor argued that city and state officials have “drained water resources from peri-urban villages” surrounding Chennai, which forces farmers flee to the city in search of work. The growing city needs land upon which to build more housing for these newcomers, so it displaces the same urban poor who arrived from the villages. All the while, the city’s water supply grows ever more fragile.

In 2003, Tamil Nadu became the first Indian state to legally mandate rainwater harvesting. A statewide campaign was launched to build awareness about how individual citizens should harvest rainwater in tanks on their roofs. Despite this, according to economist L. Venkatachalam, massive amounts of rainwater are diverted into the sea to avoid flooding.

Even supposedly successful projects to augment the city’s drinking-water supply – such as the Telugu Ganga inter-basin transfer project to bring in water from a neighboring state, some 400 kilometers away – require tremendous public and private resources to complete and maintain. Now Metrowater is marketing its new desalination plants, which clean seawater through an elaborate process of reverse osmosis. Desalination may be a boon in the deserts of Israel or Chile, but appears baffling in a city with abundant rainfall.

As Chennai strives to keep up with the demand for clean drinking water, its residents, rich and poor alike, turn to the informal water market to meet their needs. In his 2010 survey of informal water in Chennai households, Venkatachalam found that some 50 percent of low-income households purchase water privately in bottles or small containers, some spending more than five percent of their income on it.

But faith in the private water market has been severely tested. In March, the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Indian Standards inspected some 300 drinking-water packaging plants and found widespread violations. One plant was found simply funneling water from a filthy overhead tank full of dead cockroaches through a cursory filter into containers for sale to private consumers. Following the inspection, 92 plants were ordered closed.

Regulating and monitoring the quality of informal drinking water has become a significant challenge for government officials. Even if the city does succeed in improving its water supply and regulating unlicensed water suppliers, it is clear that private water is here to stay. What began as an entrepreneurial market designed to bridge a gap in public service has become a widely accepted feature of urban life.

But better connections could at least provide an alternative, and some solutions being tried in other cities have shown promise. In Manila, Bayan Tubig (Water for the Community) systems move water into neighborhoods using above-ground pipes that connect to centrally located meters. Each homeowner then creates their own “last mile” of infrastructure, connecting small-diameter pipes to the meters and running them to their own homes. In its first year, Bayan Tubig provided water to 19,000 households that hadn’t previously enjoyed private connections, and reduced those households’ water costs by an average of 25%.

Simpler still, a system called NextDrop, developed by a San Diego startup, addresses the widespread problem in India of municipal water being available only in unpredictable spurts. For a small monthly fee, users receive text messages 30 to 60 minutes before the city’s water will begin moving through the pipes in their neighborhood, eliminating the need to wait by the pump.

On a government level, technology developed by the non-profit Water for People employs low-cost data-mining – some of it channeled through devices as simple as GPS-equipped cell phones – to pinpoint and track problems with water infrastructure. So far, the technology, called Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW) has been deployed in 17 countries.

According to retired civil engineer and Chennai city historian V. Narasaiah, that acronym spells out the core principle of water management: “water must flow.” Rather than fancy projects, he says, the city should remove waste from waterways, allow riverbeds to breathe, maintain the riverbanks and prohibit encroachment on the water. He offers solutions no more innovative than simply engaging a community of water consumers to participate in the good stewardship of their own resources.



Kavitha Rajagopalan is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, where she specializes in urban informality and global migration. She is the author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Muslim Immigrant Families in the West.

[Photo courtesy of Vinoth Chandar]

A longer version of this article was published on August 24 in Next City's Informal City Dialogues.


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