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By Pallavi Singh and Lahari Babu

Chennai Trilogy 1: Chennai is in a Strange Place

If you looked at a map of India of 1000 AD, you had Kanchipuram, Mylavaram (the current Mylapore), Madurai, and other such towns in South India. The truly ancient town of Mylavaram was home for Visnu Sharma, the fabled writer of the Panchatantra Tales. As post-British developments went, Chennai was the first of the towns that the British established. Kolkata came after, although the East India Company eventually made Kolkata the capital of British India until 1920.

Madras grew for over 400 years until Independence in 1947 around the Cooum and Adyar rivers, with the two rivers adequate to meet the city’s water needs. The larger region of Chennai and Kanchipuram go back a few thousand years as urban settlements. The Pandians, the Cholas, the Chalukyas have ruled these parts with foresight and vision. Many of the water bodies that continue to feed Chennai and are located to the near-northwest of the city, go back to the Cholas or the other dynasties that ruled the city. Between 1800 and 1880, with the East India Company practically taking-over all administration in most parts of India with vassals established across the country, the British focused on infrastructure. The three major sources of water for Chennai today, the reservoirs at Poondi and Chembarambakkam, and the lake at Sholavaram were all developed and refurbished during those decades past the 1850s.

“Until the 1950s the two rivers were places where families would go on a picnic, and eat by the banks with the gently flowing rivers, clean, serene, inviting … people of course bathed in it, and washed clothes in the river,” says wistfully one old Chennai-ite. In 1950 Chennai’s population was 1 million. There were only Kolkata and Mumbai that were also cities with a million-plus people.

“Right now, Chennai is in a strange place. We were pounded by a lot of rain throughout November, December, and January of 2021. On November 6 alone, the city received 450 mm of rain. That is the total amount of rain that usually falls in the entire month of November, the rainiest month of the year for a city that has always received only the returning monsoon from October to December.”

- Ajit Nair

A Rotarian and a Water Professional of Three Decades

What can the city do to combat this situation of excess and of deficit? This massive rainfall of this last monsoon may help Chennai avoid a drought this summer. The dreadful months of Zero-Day in 2018 are not easily forgotten when Chennai was scrambling for water. Schools, offices, and businesses were all forced to close. This was thanks to the monsoon’s failure in 2017 and 2018.

Chennai receives water only if there is a storm or a depression in the Bay of Bengal. This is a city that does not have a normal cycle of rain – it has torrential rains, or runs out of water and faces a drought. That is something we have to learn with, agree all thinking citizens of Chennai and its water leaders. How can the city build resilience for the long term? That is the question.

WOW Chennai is an Action Forum that has been launched by about a hundred citizen leaders of the city. This is part of a larger mission across many cities that the AltTech Foundation, a powerful visionary institution, is making an impact across many cities. Chennai is one of them.

Says a senior water leader and member of WOW Chennai, “The city has about 1.2 crore people. At about 150 liters of water used per day, this means a daily demand of about 180-200 crore liters of freshwater is needed every day. The metro water supply offers today about 80 crore liters a day from the existing reservoirs. And leakages in the distribution system account for 40 percent of the water or about 30 crore liters.”

Read any reports that cursory web research offers, and you will see the city administrators have been investing monies in huge water supply projects to secure an additional 88-90 crore liters per day from sources that range from the Minjur desalination plant (10 crore liters a day), Krishna water (50 crore liters), Nemeli desalination plant (10 crore liters), and Cauvery water from the Veeranam Tank (18 crore liters).

The City is expected to have its population grow to 15 million by 2035, with 300 crore liters a day being freshwater demand. Can successive governments and administrators continue to find long-distance water resources for the city infinitely? Can water be grown or manufactured? Does the answer lie in continuing to find additional water sources of water from reservoirs and rivers that are farther away from the urban agglomeration? Are there other ways of resolving the challenge of growing water deficits?

Chennai Trilogy 2: Galvanizing Chennai-ites to Adopt Water-Saving Solutions

The Chennai WOW Action Forum (WOWAF) has set a modest target of saving 1000 Crore Liters of freshwater demand, with water-users demonstrating such change without any intervention from the government. So what does this mean? Will citizens use less water, and conserve? Or will they employ simple, affordable solutions to bring such a drop in freshwater demanded? Are there other solutions that help to use locally harvested water right at homes and apartments and other buildings, apart from simple systems for increasing the earth’s capacity to store groundwater with open wells that offer us water? How do we learn from our traditional knowledge systems, and with a bit of contemporary engineering, adopt solutions that can change the way we think of water supply and water use?

“WOWAF is a combination of thinking of all of these directions. It is central to what Chennai needs to do to not use less water but use water efficiently. All of us here have a lot of thoughts and solutions, and they’re all extremely rich in nature. We have enough solutions. Come summer, and every Chennai-ite starts wondering where the water is.

The Chennai WOW Action Forum will bring strength to City leaders, will galvanize action in zones with local communities taking up solutions. We will work with the young to create Action Groups for different segments of water users, and for different areas of the city.”

- Cowlagi Sripati

International Centre for Clean Water

Chimes in E Nandakumar, an IITM 1984 alumni, and in recent years the CEO of the International Centre for Clean Water that is housed in the sprawling IITM campus, “There are 3 points I would wish to make. First, that when I heard of the mission target of 1000 crore liters, I thought it was formidable, difficult to achieve. But it took me no time to make a back-of-the-envelope estimate. I did. We have a population of 1.2 crore in Chennai. And a daily consumption of 150-200 liters to a person, including industrial use. If we truly want to save 1000 crores, we just need to conserve 6-9 days of water per person every year. This appears to be a big area where we can outperform if everyone chips in. There is a lot of promise.


“Second, my experience in the apartment I live in, is illustrative of what we can do. We had to raise the maintenance fees by Rs 600 per month for each apartment only to cover water costs last year. In addition, we discovered people were purchasing bottled water at a monthly cost of Rs 800. Only for water, this meant Rs 1400 per month. At about 200 flats to the apartment, we were squandering about Rs 2.8 lac a month or about 35 lac a year in just our apartment block of 250+ homes. It was common sense to a few of us that we could manage to secure this for a fraction of that cost, if we worked on a few simple solutions. The drinking water we were buying was RO processed, with all the hazards and risks of RO treatment. And people were wasting money on these, without thinking of solutions that were right under our nose.


“Why does this happen to residents of not just my apartment but of thousands of other apartments? Corporation water does not reach us. So we buy by the tankers, pay more for it, we create a softener plant, we enhance our storage tank capacity, we have to have our own water treatment facility, and so on. We spend a lot of money. This has to change, was clear. And we did at our apartment. The savings were measurable. Our water availability has been better, while we know we can improve a deal more with many more solutions that we can adopt.


“The third aspect that Chennai’s public bodies and the government should focus on is the restoration and nurturing of the lakes that still survive. There used to be over a thousand lakes. The City has sustained even today on the water supply from Poondi and Chembarambakkam or the Sholavaram lake and not by the three rivers of Chennai – two of which (Adyar and Cooum) have been reduced to being sewers. The Buckingham canal is another treasure that Chennai has to nurture, and protect. These are all finite sources. They cannot yield any more than they do as fresh water supply to the city. Yes, WOWAF members must consider restoring all these bodies of water. Then there’s a lot more rain in Chennai than there was in earlier years. The water table is already high, and when it rains, there are floods. Restoring water bodies and developing rainwater collecting sites will make a big difference.”

How do we work on such potential that E Nandakumar outlines? What are likely deterrents? Why have people not acted on these even if they seem as alluringly simple?

Chennai Trilogy 3: Having an ‘Active Shallow Aquifer’ for Chennai

There are other water-watchers of long decades who bring clarity in understanding of the situation on the ground, but whose voices do not get heard as much as they should be. Sekhar Raghavan of Rain Centre is one such.

“Every home, every building, must create open shallow wells, and use them to draw water. We have to create a ‘live bank’ of water that is deposited and withdrawn for the shallow aquifer and the soil strata of the city to be alive, and working for us. What we saw in 2021 in Chennai is very different from the past. We received a lot of rain in previous years, which caused overflow and floods in the city. This year, though, we are being flooded by our own groundwater. It’s what I’d call ‘healthy fighting’. This is something that most people are unaware of. People want me to install recharge wells whenever there is flooding. I explain to them that flooding is caused only by recharging wells! No, I’m not arguing that recharging should not be done. What is more important is that drawing of water should be practiced every day in every building. Why should we do so? There is an alluvial layer above the hard rock and another beneath the hard rock, and continuous depositing of water and drawing of it will keep the strata nurtured and groundwater retention strengthened, apart from helping us ward off threats of floods in each of the city suburbs. People should drill wells near their homes and begin extracting water; only then will the threat of floods subside.”


Says Raghavan, the other challenge that the government has to address is the cost of water. “If people don’t pay enough for it, they will not prize it. Chennai has a flat rate for every six months—regardless of how much a home or building consumes. So the need to use groundwater doesn’t exist. If water costs more, users will turn to draw water from shallow wells. It will build a hydrological cycle for the city that will help beat the risk of floods and of deficits. Will we learn our lesson from 2021 and set specific citizen action targets? Will the City Administration and Government also endorse it?”

The other major challenge and low-hanging fruit that Chennai’s water administration and the state government can resolve with a little effort is the persistent, massive loss of nearly 40 percent on leakages and distribution. With grid water supply to the city at about 80 crore liters a day, this loss alone accounts for 30 crore liters a day and more! So where does Chennai get the rest of the freshwater demanded every day by both citizens and industry? Groundwater. No surprise that the very economy of Chennai is threatened this decade with much more that is required to make it sustainable and liveable. The city draws more than half its need from groundwater. The story that is not told by official data is of industry and the quantum of water they draw in the northern parts of Chennai which have served as the source of water for the city that now is extending rapidly to its west and the south.

Water experts in Chennai have long advocated simple measures the government and the water utility can take to plug the massive leakages in the system of pipelines that is at least a century old and creaking under its own weight. So what is the approach for managing what is euphemistically called non-revenue water which goes completed unbilled despite the cost that is incurred in hauling such water all the way to the city, treating it, and then losing it to the leakages.

“Countries like Cambodia have offered lessons in implementing contemporary maintenance approaches for managing non-revenue water loss. We must pay close attention to these whether we’re dealing with a utility, an individual client, a colony, or a tenant building. It essentially helps the user understand the amount of water supplied/purchased against the volume of water billed. Chennai needs to undertake a comprehensive study on ‘water balancing’. If we really want to bring impact on water savings in Chennai, we must address challenges at the city level. We’re talking about a 1000 CR liter capacity. This is extremely feasible. It is a baby step, for a city that demands about 60,000 crore liters a day on residential demand alone.

There is then the matter of how we deal with the city shallow aquifers. It is easy to forget how Chennai’s aquifers have served the city’s people in the past. The first step in launching a campaign in Chennai has to be to create a background tone. Basically, to comprehend what is going on in Chennai in terms of public water supplies, in-house water supplies from wells and borewells, and tanker water supply dependencies. We did this some time ago. We produced a report.”

- Ashok Natarajan

Former CEO of Tamilnadu Water Investment Company Limited

Saravanan Janakiraman, an Urban Analyst, adds, “We know very little about groundwater sources. We need to understand Chennai’s aquifer across the city’s geographic spread. It is this aquifer that was classified as ‘ground zero’ two years ago but has since rebounded back; it is this aquifer that meets our needs in every drought. During the 1981 drought, Metro Water supplied just 300 million liters per day. We were able to access about 600 MLD of ground water from the city’s wells and borewells. We must understand these underground sources. The data and analysis gathered by that study, helped us locate possible areas inside the city that can meet about 100 MLD.”

In all this, the city’s water users and the state has been unable to switch to a decentralized water delivery system simply because we were trapped with the centralized system. The Metro water utility will stick to its mandate of supply of water, and not think of either promoting demand-side aspects of efficient water management or encouraging water users to reduce demand for freshwater with simple measures that can bring down the need to purchase water by 80 percent!

About the Authors

Pallavi Singh is a Research Associate and Environmental Planner at AltTech.Foundation.

Lahari Babu is an Architecture Student doing her research internship at AltTech.Foundation.

WOW AF is a multi-city citizen-led initiative now in action in four Indian cities of Bengaluru, Chennai, Trichy, Hyderabad, and moving soon to four more cities in the country, and is led by water experts and citizen leaders who seek to bring water efficiency with water-users adopting solutions to meet a Mission Target of Saving 3000 Crore Liters in these cities.

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