Who will provide water security to Chennai?

Chennai is battling sever water crisis with daily water supply of 550 mn l/day against a required 1,200 mn l/d

By Avilash Roul
Published: Friday 31 May 2019

Chennai is battling one of its worst water crisis in nearly 75 years. As the returning monsoon missed this part of the earth in November-December 2018, causing severe drought-like conditions, increasing water use and misuse by the coastal metropolis has raised questions on water sustainability and the city's resilience.

How will this growing city — geographically and demographically — provide long-term, uninterrupted, sustainable access to water for all? Claims and counter-claims on the question of water security must go beyond techno-bureaucratic interventions.

After Chennai was established as a settlement, water was being drawn from outside to run the city. This is even more apt in the present context: Four reservoirs beyond Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board’s (CMWSSB’s) jurisdiction act as a lifeline for 10.3 million human and other beings living in Chennai.

Over and above, Chennai squarely depends on the melodies of monsoon and moods of neighbouring states which share inter-state river water to fulfil the city’s various needs.

Despite blaming Monsoon and aspiring for additional moisture from Cyclone Fani, officials are yet to coherently devise a long-term plan to address water security in Chennai.

Has water bureaucracy failed?

CMWSSB — the leading agency for water supply in Chennai — has been managing hard by rationing daily water supply of 550 million litres per day (mld), down from 880 mld, against a required 1,200 mld.

As of May 22, out of a total storage capacity of 11,257 million cubic feet (mcft) of four reservoirs — Poondi, Cholovaram, Redhills and Chembarambakkam — merely 120 mcft (3,398 million litres) is available. 

The three reservoirs had 3,123 mcft around the same time Last year. Other sources such as the Veeranam Lake — 235 km away from Chennai — still have some water; with 100 mlds additional supply from the Minjur desalination plant.

Sustainable Water Security Mission (SWSM) of CMWSSB aims to meet the future demand through restoring and rejuvenating water bodies in and around Chennai; expanding and strengthening rain water harvesting across the city and promoting recycling and reuse of waste water.

The SWSM is meant for ‘drought-proofing’ rather than ‘monsoon-proofing’. Besides CMWSSB, there are 13 or more agencies of state and central governments, including other municipal agencies dealing with water governance of Chennai in a complex web of overlap, dominance and secrecy.

The government agencies are sitting over numerous relevant data and number of studies related to water, which could be a source for devising better solutions if shared proactively in public. Few have had the privilege of getting access to such water data.

Various studies, done by prestigious institutions, and infamously labelled as detailed project reports (DPRs) along the corridors of the Ezhilagam Building (where state government offices are located), have never been shared in public.

The authority over water in Chennai is imprecise and scattered over Fort St George (state Assembly), Ezhilagam Building (the bureaucracy) and Ripon Building (Greater Chennai Corporation). With such complex water governance, the water bureaucracy backed by consultants needs external agencies to rescue Chennai from its grave water crisis.


To make Chennai resilient after the 2015 Flood and the 2016 Cyclone, the state government sought external support from various agencies but with a limited focus on averting flood and cyclone impacts in the city.

Similarly, the discussion around rejuvenating eries (water bodies) for flood mitigation has not received much traction from the government.  At the same time, agencies channelling their resources and researches towards Chennai have increased.

The spike in research related to Chennai can be observed with prestigious institutions such as Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IITM) in collaboration with international academic institutions as well as international consultancy agencies.

The institution itself is facing acute water crisis within its campus. Consequently, the administration has ordered hostel inmates to vacate hostels during the vacations.  Simply put, there is not much water inside the IIT campus to serve all.

Agencies and projects, including the German funding agency GIZ and Rockefeller Foundation funded project 100 Resilient City (100 RC) have their own working space within Ripon and Ezhilagam Building.

While GIZ is focusing on restoring Buckingham Canal as one of its project, 100 RC has been collaging existing perceptions of water into future water vision for Chennai.

What Chennai city needs is a ‘comprehensive city water strategy’ to guide it into the future with a resilient and sustainable direction. The new entrant in the gloomy arithmetic of water in Chennai is the Dutch government and its partners.

Under the aegis of the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Dutch government has funded two collaging ideation projects in Chennai called water as leverage (WaL) in coordination with 100RC.

Whether the Dutch government has met its pledges of 0.22 per cent Official Development Assistance (ODA) is another concern. However, during the process of preparing two case studies on WaL’s first phase (suggesting ‘bankable’ projects) in Chennai for Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), there is a huge burden of not involving major stakeholders in dialogue — the youth and vulnerable groups in Chennai.

Most likely, AIIB is not finding the project ideation as ‘bankable’ yet. The World Bank and KfW (German Development Bank) have already been roped in to fund storm water drains and massive underground drain projects in Kovalam basin as flood mitigation projects.

Earlier, both the agencies supported two phases of storm water drain projects. Now, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has been requested by the government to pick up third phases of the storm water drain projects, which the Manila-based multilateral agency is considering.

Besides, the ADB is supporting water supply and sewerage system improvement component for Chennai under a state-wide urban development project. It is looking into opportunities for future water utilisation prospects in the state.

It is not absolute that the external agencies, along with state agencies, will be able to provide much-needed water security to Chennai. All interventions in the water sector are limited or compartmental.

There is rather little interest and experience of state agencies embedding higher goals of climate proofing in a larger, people-centric, future-oriented approach that embraces the whole of the city and all of its citizens.

The project-based approached has failed. Without a state water policy or plan, most of the interventions are so far ad-hoc and reactive in nature. A state-wide assessment of water is required before making a State Water Plan.

While preparing the state water plan and Chennai City Water Strategy, the administration must take cognizance of Chennai City Disaster Plan, State Disaster Perspective Plan, State Action Plan on Climate Change (still a draft form), National Water Policy, SDGs, Paris Agreement on Climate Change, etc.

Further, independent evaluation of various projects and programs or initiatives by external agencies in the water sector must be done in a time-bound manner, and shared immediately with the public.

Having a State Water policy and City Water Strategy, coordination among agencies will be more formalised for rights interventions than random studies or speculative interventions. 

Water security is not limited to securing sources of water, merely. It’s a multi-tier and multi-layer cooperative model beyond strict control of techno-bureaucratic-consultant model. Chennai will require 2,100 mlds in 2030 — better preparations and arrangements now can pave way for the future.

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