Chennai, crippled by water crisis, is also a metaphor for what Indian cities are experiencing in sourcing and managing the most precious natural resource: water. An in-depth analysis

By R K Srinivasan, Deepa Kozhisseri
Published: Friday 31 December 2004


-- (Credit: Rustam vania /CSE)
A cruel summer has been left behind. Pipes are gurgling to life and the surge of water tankers on Chennai's streets is on the ebb. People and leaders are now free to discuss issues non-aqueous. There are even days when Chennai's papers skip the almost mandatory columns devoted to water. It is beguilingly close to good times.

From November 15, the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewage Board (cmwssb, popularly called Metro Water) resumed piped water supply for the first time since January 2004. Now, it supplies through pipes on alternate days. "This month we have purchased only three lorries of water," says S Kumuraswamy, president of the residents' association of Kadhir Kasturi Apartments, a block of flats in Adayar. Earlier, the block of flats required 11 tankers per month.

The residents' association owns a water treatment plant, with reverse osmosis technology, that converts brackish water from their borewell to drinking water. The plant now runs twice a week; till a couple of months ago, it used to run everyday. On an average, the total water bill of the apartment block is Rs 13,000 each month, which works out to an average of Rs 1,625 per household every month. And this excludes what they pay for bottled water. For comparison, consider Delhi. Even after the proposed revision in water prices, a luxury apartment will pay Rs 192 per month for water supplied at the rate of 140 litres per capita per day.

Despite resumption of piped water, several residents don't share Kumuraswamy's exuberance. "Metro Water's supply is a trickle of water laced with rust particles from the pipes," says V H Balakrishnan on Dr Radhakrishna Salai. He lives in Shanti Apartments, a block of 16 flats, which still requires six 12,000-litre tankers every month, costing Rs 700-750 each. The average cost of tankers alone to each household is about Rs 260 per month. The complex has a borewell, but its water has high iron content. So the residents had to install a filtering plant at the cost of Rs 50,000. They also pay Rs 20 per kilolitre as cost of filtering the water. In addition, the residents have to spend on bottled water. Two decades ago, the dugwell in the apartment block met the drinking water needs. Chennai relied almost exclusively on dugwells, which have now gone dry. Water from dugwells is available to all, rich and poor. As input costs of obtaining water increase, the divide becomes starker.

While the rich somehow manage, albeit at a high cost, the poor have no option but to bear with Metro Water's vagaries. In the large slum of Srinivasapuram are numerous fixed plastic tanks that Metro Water's tankers fill up daily. Each tank provides drinking water to about 100 people. In October 2004, a fire destroyed several houses in the slum. The road the tankers used was littered with debris and some belongings that could be salvaged from flames.

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