The combined storage levels of Chennai’s four reservoirs stood at 6388mcft on 2nd April, almost ten times higher than what was recorded on the same day last year. The number raises hope that there will be no water scarcity in the city, at least not for the next six months, as assured by the Chief Engineer of the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB). But, why are those living in the suburbs at Ambattur and Chrompet unable to derive any solace from this? Water scarcity is a reality they are grappling with every day.
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The reasons for the shortage in these two locations may be different, but the struggle of the residents in these two areas are the same. Forget disinfecting houses and washing hands every hour to protect themselves from COVID-19, residents have no water even for their basic needs. Their problems are compounded now as people work from home, adding to the demand during the day.
“Water supply has come down to a trickle. Chennai Corporation has been encouraging citizens to clean their houses and wash hands to protect themselves from COVID-19. But, how can we do it when we don’t have enough water for bathing and cooking?” asks S Suresh, Secretary, Thiruvengada Nagar Residents Welfare Association, Ambattur.
The root of the crisis
On the eastern side of Chrompet and other parts of the Pallavaram Municipality, water scarcity is caused by the non-implementation of the Chembarambakkam water scheme. The Chembarambakkam water project proposed to the municipality around eight years ago is close to completion, as the CMWSSB has completed the task of laying pipelines. “We were assured of regular water supply once the project got completed. I paid a sum of Rs 1500 eight months ago to get the connection. But since then, there has been no progress,” says a resident of Chrompet.
Under the circumstances, water from Palar river is the only source of water for the residents of the municipality. But it is not sufficient. “Like in all other localities, citizens have dug borewells. But now, the levels are fast falling and as Palar water, which we rely on for drinking needs, comes only once in a week or sometimes even once in 15 days, it is getting tough,” says V Santhanam, a Chrompet resident and a social activist.
Palar water supply has always been irregular in the municipality, due to various reasons. Sometimes, it is due to low water levels during peak summer, but mostly it is due to faulty pipelines. “Palar water comes from more than 30 km away. So when the roads on the stretch are dug up to lay underground cables, pipelines get broken,” said a senior official from Pallavaram Municipality, attributing the current scarcity to the same factor.
Residents are presently relying on water from borewells, but they are worried. “There is fast depletion of groundwater levels. I am sure the situation will be even worse by the end of this month,” said G Gopalan, a resident of Bharathipuram, Chrompet.
Why Ambattur residents struggle
It has been two weeks since the residents of Thiruvengada Nagar in Ambattur received regular piped water supply. Regular water supply in the area means receiving water for one hour thrice a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “That was the scenario two weeks ago. But now, it has been reduced to once a week,” said Vijay Xavier, Treasurer of Thiruvengada Nagar Residents Welfare Association.
The thrice-a-week water supply was challenging enough for residents, as they had to estimate their needs and stock up on water, and use it carefully. But now with supply being even more infrequent, they have to rely on the brackish, groundwater drawn through borewells.
Groundwater in Ambattur is polluted due to industrial contamination, the reason why most residents applied for and invested in a connection from CMWSSB, despite knowing that supply may not be regular. “Groundwater is of poor quality here due to pollution, with the level of Total Dissolved Salts (TDS) being more than 1000 mg/litre (as against a recommended upper limit of around 250mg/ litre. If it exceeds 300mg/ litre, it means the water quality is poor according to the Environmental Protection Agency in the US),” said Suresh, adding that the Thiruvengada Nagar Residents’ Welfare Association has been receiving complaints of water shortage for two weeks now. “A lot of us are curtailing usage and adjusting to the dark, stinking water from the borewells,” said Suresh.
The assistant engineer of CMWSSB attributed the shortage to the accumulated mud in the pipelines and declined to comment further. While core areas in Chennai city are fortunate to have enough water for now, the suburbs face such a crisis amid this unprecedented pandemic, when the availability of water becomes even more critical than in normal circumstances. “Peripheral areas or suburbs are always ignored,” concluded V Santhanam, in a not-so-surprised tone.