It didn’t move on rainwater harvesting, reclaiming wastewater; other cities must learn from the crisis
Chennai’s water crisis perhaps signals the start of a new normal—abject water-deprivation in parts of India. Indeed, a 2018 report by NITI Aayog speaks of 21 Indian cities, including Bengaluru, Delhi, and Hyderabad, running out of groundwater by 2020; Chennai is the worst-affected among 400 cities across the world studied for water scarcity—four Indian cities are in the top-20 most affected—using data gathered by The Nature Conservancy and the World Wide Fund for Nature. India’s water-crisis—600 million people already face high-to-extreme water stress every year—is rooted in the fact that it has just 4% of the world’s freshwater resources while supporting 16% of its population. Scarcity is compounded by poor quality—with nearly 70% of water contaminated, 200,000 die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. A business-as-usual scenario means, by 2050, India’s GDP could see a 6% loss.
Inadequate storage—annual precipitation is 15 times, and the volume eventually available for utilisation four times the country’s reservoir capacity—and abuse of scant resources, thanks to poor agricultural policy among other reasons, are not the only problem. For a country looking at high-levels of water-stress in the future—clashes over water are happening not just between states, but also within—India doesn’t really focus on recycle and reuse or better household/building level harvesting. About 80% of the water that reaches households is lost as wastewater that is never reclaimed. Contrast this with Singapore, which imported 55% of its water requirement from Malaysia in 1965 and yet, has managed to provide 100% access to clean water over the last three decades. Key to its success is its reclamation of wastewater. The Singapore Public Utilities Board, since 2000, has been treating wastewater using microfiltration, reverse osmosis and UV treatment, in addition to the usual water treatment processes, and has delivered potable water that is purer than even the WHO standards. Today, NEWater, the reclaimed water, meets 40% of Singapore’s water needs while desalination plants, started in 2005, meet another 10%. To be sure, Delhi has announced plans to emulate the NEWater model, but the fact is, cities are failing at even simpler solutions. In Bengaluru, the tanker mafia is flourishing as the government has failed to meet demand—with the tankers extracting groundwater from areas adjacent to the city, water deficiency is spreading. The city draws 1,350 million litres externally per day, and yet it squanders 3,000 million litres of the daily average rainfall it receives. The Mumbai Metropolitan region has been batting for a linking of the Damanganga and Pinjal rivers—at significant environmental costs, experts say—but it fails to harvest the 2,400 mm of rainfall it receives, and won’t reclaim wastewater. Tamil Nadu, in 2003, promulgated a landmark ordinance on compulsory rainwater harvesting by all buildings. Chennai has 12.5 lakh buildings, including government ones, and a 2015 government-mandated audit by Rain Centre, an NGO, found that government buildings in the greater Chennai region were the worst violators of the harvesting rule. Now, when Tamil Nadu rainfall deficit has reached 41%, the city is virtually shutting down in distress.
The complete neglect of wetlands, lakes, waterbodies and flood-plains and the concretisation/metalling march in cities has come at the cost of water percolation and silting of rivers. Once water-surplus, Chennai sacrificed nearly 75% of its water bodies from a little over three decades ago to urban development. A study by Anna University shows Chennai lost 33% of its wetlands between 2006 and 2016 and 24% of its agricultural land (crucial for groundwater replenishment). Concurrently, barren land and area under settlement increased by 15% and 13%, respectively. Unsustainable urbanisation, and apathy for water reclamation and harvest brought Chennai to its knees. Other cities must learn from the crisis—given the climate crisis’s impact on monsoon, time for action is running out.