Chennai's thirst

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

The daily struggle for water, in a locality in the city. - VINO JOHN

The daily struggle for water, in a locality in the city. - VINO JOHN

MENTION Chennai and the first thing people want to know about is the availability of water, besides the heat of course. This summer the scarcity could be the worst ever for the 55 lakh people in Tamil Nadu's capital city, not to speak of the several lakhs living in its suburbs. Chennai receives its rainfall mostly from the northeast monsoon in three or four spells during October-December. The monsoon failed in 2002 and 2003. In 2003, Chennai received only 280 mm of rain from the northeast monsoon against the normal of 580 mm, a deficit of 54 per cent. Consequently, the storage levels in the city's reservoirs - Red Hills, Poondi and Cholavaram - are the lowest in 55 years.

As on March 1, 2004, the combined storage in these reservoirs was 160.5 million cubic feet while their total storage capacity of 7,412 mc ft. Of the combined capacity, Red Hills contributes 3,300 mc ft, a Satyamurthi Sagar at Poondi 3,231 mc ft and Cholavaram 881 mcft. An official of Metrowater, the body in charge of water supply in the city, called the situation "very, very bad" and said water in the reservoirs was down to the "dead storage" level. "Only groundwater can save the city," he added. In fact, it is the groundwater from the irrigation wells around Chennai that has kept the city going.

If the Tamil Nadu government/Metrowater officials pinned their hopes on the Telugu Ganga project to combat the water problem in Chennai, the project flattered to deceive. The Krishna river water released from the Kandaleru reservoir in Andhra Pradesh reached the zero point near Uthukottai in Tamil Nadu, after covering a distance of 152 km, on February 16. It was to reach Poondi and then course 35 km down the Baby Canal to the Red Hills reservoir for being treated and ferried in tankers. But such hopes evaporated on February 18 with the Poondi canal remaining dry. Illegal tapping of water by farmers and the drawal of water to meet the demands of Tirupati town in Andhra Pradesh were offered as the reasons for the virtual non-arrival of the Krishna water in the Poondi canal.

The present supply to Chennai is about 103 million litres a day. The water is pumped from the well-fields at Minjur, Panchetti and other places into the system. Besides, tankers supply about 125 million litres of water a day to Chennai from private agricultural wells. With the identification of more private agricultural wells and more tankers being pressed into service, about 125 million of litres of water is being distributed in Chennai every day.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa told the State Assembly on February 10 that a scheme was under way to ensure that Chennai continued to receive 103 million litres of water a day in the summer months. This would be done by tapping 32 million litres a day from 110 agricultural wells. Besides, 1,000 deep borewells would be sunk in different parts of the city. This would be in addition to the existing 6,530 deep borewells. All this would cost Rs.28.50 crores.

She said there were plans to hire about 125 field wells around Poondi and pump 30 million litres of water a day from them into the Red Hills water treatment plant. Pipes would be laid to transport this water from Poondi to Red Hills. Tankers would make several hundred more trips to supply the water to the various parts of the city. All this would continue until the end of September when the northeast monsoon sets in. These works would cost Rs.306 crores, she said.

On February 22, the Central inter-ministerial team deputed to assess the drought in Tamil Nadu visited the Red Hills and Poondi reservoirs. The Chief Minister has written to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee requesting the release of Rs.700 crores from the National Calamity Contingency Fund to battle the water crisis in Chennai. The Centre has announced an initial assistance of Rs.50 crores.

The only hope for Chennai residents now is the New Veeranam Project in Cuddalore district, titled the Chennai Water Supply Augmentation Project - I. Jayalalithaa said the scheme would be completed at a cost of Rs.720 crores by the end of May.

But the project is mired in controversy. Leaders of the Opposition Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) claim that when the water in the Veeranam lake is not enough to irrigate its own ayacut, it cannot cater to Chennai's needs. Leaders of other parties, too, share this fear.

However, according to Jayalalithaa, the scheme was being implemented without affecting irrigation in the existing ayacut. By raising the lake bund by 0.6 metres, its capacity had been raised from 930 mc ft to 1,485 mc ft, she said. This and other steps taken to augment the lake's capacity would result in the availability of water going up from 11.06 tmc ft to 14.45 tmc ft, she said. Of the additional 3.39 tmc ft, only 2.45 tmc ft would be used for the New Veeranam Project. "The truth is that agriculture will get an additional 1 tmc ft," she said. Besides, she said, her government was examining a proposal, which would be an "alternative" to the New Veeranam Project and would "strengthen" it. This would enable a supply of 180 million litres of water, she said.

Will the Tamil Nadu government use the proven expertise of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) at Trombay, Mumbai, to put up desalination plants, which may offer a durable solution to Chennai's water problem? BARC has erected the world's largest desalination plant linked to a nuclear power station adjacent to the Madras Atomic Power Station in Kalpakkam, about 50 km from Chennai.

This plant has two sections. One section produces 18 lakh litres of potable water a day from sea water using the reverse osmosis method and the other section, which is scheduled to become operational in six months, will produce 45 lakh litres a day using the thermal method.

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