On a late Wednesday evening in mid-April, a queue of women forms in front of the water tap at Doraiswamy Reddy Street, Korattur. Leaving their domestic chores and cooking half done, these women have rushed with their pots and cans to source their bi-weekly water supply from the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB). The anxiety on their faces is palpable. Not everyone will have filled pots to take back home at the end of the evening. A slight brown coloured liquid with a rotten smell trickles down the road, as a woman opens the tap. She just lets the water flow off.
Of course, this has been a part of the water sourcing ritual in the area for almost a decade now. No one knows the time and duration of the supply for certain. Whenever water flows in the tap, residents of the area, mostly women, pause their chores and line up to procure their share of water. Water is supplied on Sundays and on one weekday (usually Wednesday or Thursday) anytime between 6 pm to 8.30 pm. The duration of the supply is usually an hour, but almost invariably, the water that flows from these taps for the first few minutes of supply is darkish brown in colour and on a few occasions, have even been found to contain worms. Evidently enough, the water is impure and unpotable.
“We get clean water only after the unclean water has drained from the tap. In the one hour of water supply once in four days, we have to let the water flow out for ten minutes before we start filling out our vessels,” says Kumari P, a resident. About 15 families rely on the water from this tap according to their accounts, each time water is supplied, they have to let two to three pots of water drain away till they find clear water. One pot is around 20 litres on average. So every week, 80 to 120 litres of water from just one tap has to be thrown away. In a city widely known to suffer water shortages.
Not a drop to drink
The change in seasons or the brimming of water bodies makes no difference to these residents. They are not alone. Water contamination is a pressing issue in many parts of North Chennai, and a known one, which is why many of the candidates in the recently-conducted legislative polls made it one of their key electoral promises. Royapuram DMK Candidate Idream R Murthy has promised to rectify the issue if elected to power.
However, residents have been listening to such promises over decades and have scant hope.”Water contamination in Royapuram constituency forms a key electoral promise. Incumbent MLA D Jaykumar had promised to change the pipelines and solve the issue in every campaign. But the four-time MLA from the constituency failed to do so,” said a potter and a resident of Royapuram, seeking anonymity.
Therefore, even when the rest of the city enjoys adequate water supply, North Chennai residents have to fight shortage throughout the year, not so much due to quantitative constraints as qualitative. And an uncaring Chennai Metro Water.
The tap that supplies Metro water to John Alexander’s home at Arathoon Road of Royapuram was sealed permanently three years ago. “I have closed it because I have decided not to depend on the CMWSSB’s filthy water,” says John Alexander. For years, this tap was connected to their water tank and everytime water was supplied, they would have to let the water flow out for the first 15 to 20 minutes, till they had clear water from the tap. “It was an additional burden to clean out the tank, if the brown, smelly water somehow got into it. Despite us being cautious, there have been instances when we had to do this because muddy water had entered the sump,” adds John.
The family received no responses for the multiple complaints they have filed with the CMWSSB. The experiences of the citizens may be different, but the issue is the same in pockets of Ambattur, Royapuram and Korattur. Though the situation is not as bad as in North Chennai, water pollution also troubles the low-income residential pockets of Saidapet and Chetpet.
“Despite paying taxes (7.5% of property tax goes to CMWSSB for water), we are in a helpless situation and have to buy water from private tankers. Water contamination has been an issue for so many years that I don’t remember ever having clean water from the Metro water connections,” says S Sekaran, a civic activist and a resident of Ambattur.
While the rich and middle class can do without CMWSSB supply by buying water from private sources, the poor have no choice but to compromise on quality. “We use the water for cooking. If only the water was clear and not muddy, we could have used it directly for drinking needs, as buying water cans is expensive,” said Krishnaveni D, a migrant who works as a mason in Korattur. A pot of around 25 litres costs Rs 8 at the RO plant, but a recurring expense such as this is unaffordable for Krishnaveni whose family of two live in a roadside hut.
Root causes of water pollution
No formal tests have been conducted on the water in these areas, according to Metro Water, so that there is hardly any data from them on quality parameters such as turbidity, total dissolved solids [TDS] and the like. Citizen groups, too have not taken any steps to test the water. However, all the citizens we spoke to had one thing in common to share: The water reeks of sewage.
In 2019, a report from the Greater Chennai Corporation revealed alarming details about the city’s water quality. “At least 30 percent of the drinking water samples in Chennai failed the quality tests and one in every five samples had bacterial contamination including E coli,” the report said.
E Coli in water is an indicator of animal or human waste contamination. “E coli infection results in diarrhoea and cramps. Generally, patients recover within a week with medication, though in some strains or extreme cases, it could lead to organ failure,” said Dr B Yesudasan, a general physician based in the city.
What causes such contamination? Leakage of underground water and sewage pipelines is the chief reason for the pollution. Time and again, Metro Water officials respond to these complaints superficially by repairing the pipelines. However, it has proved to be an inefficient and transient solution.
“Internet cables are being laid across North Chennai, due to which the water and sewer pipelines often get damaged. Rectifying the problem is a time consuming affair as it is difficult to identify the source of leakage. Meanwhile, we ensure that water continues to be supplied through our tankers,” said a senior Metro Water official. “Sometimes, leakage in storm water drains results in water contamination as most of our drains carry sewage and not fresh water,” said S Sekaran.
The official’s quote flags another area of concern: the mix up of utility lines and the lack of inter-departmental coordination. Just like in any other city, utility lines are prone to damage in Chennai. “Immediately after the Chennai Corporation lays roads, Metro water department will dig it up to lay sewage or water pipelines. Then when they are done, the Electricity Board department or BSNL will dig up the road again to connect their utility lines. This is the scenario across cities. There is no coordination between departments,” Sekaran added.
Apart from the lack of coordination, these departments also suffer due to lack of information or data. “Utility lines (EB lines, telecommunication cables, storm water drains, water and sewage lines) as old as a hundred years lie underground. Since the location of these lines are not documented, it is impossible for us to lay out new lines without affecting the others,” said a senior TNEB official.
Geo-mapping utility lines can enable effective maintenance of pipelines. Efforts were made earlier to map the utility lines in Chennai, under the central government’s National Urban Information System (NUIS). “The job order of the outsourced agency was terminated due to incomplete execution and the NUIS came to a closure in 2016 and the component of utility mapping was dropped (June 2016),” noted a report.
Geo mapping of utility lines finds space in various central government schemes including Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and Smart Cities Mission. For the past three years, there has been a push from the Tamil Nadu government to map the lines, says Vignesh T, geospatial and data science engineer, Smartterra, which helps cities and large private properties transition from an offline, reactive operations and maintenance model for their water processes to an online, predictive and efficiency-driven model.
“Using the Geographical Information system (GIS) and Geographical Positioning System (GPS), we can map these pipelines. However, the biggest challenge before this initiative is the absence of records. These lines are changed often and most departments have no data on what these lines are for,” said Vignesh. “It is definitely a cumbersome process. But it is important to kick-start it, to ensure that the lines are properly maintained and can be fixed at short notice whenever there is a problem. Government agencies can team up with NGOs to compile this data.”
According to a senior Metro Water official, the department has commenced geo-mapping work in five wards (36, 59, 129, 177 and 104) of Chennai as part of a pilot project. “A study is being conducted to understand the challenges in the procedure. We will be mapping the pipelines and providing the data to all the nodal offices so that they can check the location of the utility lines and don’t damage the pipelines when they dig the roads.”
When asked whether the Municipal Administration and Water Supply department (MAWS) department had carried out any similar exercise, the official said, “No department has mapped the pipelines underground till now. This will be the foremost study and will be a solution to the persistent issue of water contamination in Chennai.” However when that solution will finally see the light of the day, and at a significant scale, is anybody’s guess at this point in time.