A view of Silver Park apartments in Chennai
A view of Silver Park apartments in Chennai|Pic courtesy: Cibe Chakravarthy

High Rises & Townships Consume Maximum Share Of Water In Chennai

These residents are dependent on private water suppliers & cost & quantity of water rises each year

Cibe Chakravarthy

Cibe Chakravarthy

In a press conference on Monday, SP Velumani, Minister for Municipal & Rural Administration, asked the media not to “hype” the issue of water supply as it has been managed efficiently across the state.

Stating that he was not interested in “countering the opposition party’s false claims,” he told reporters that necessary steps had been taken to manage water shortage in the state.

The Chief Minister, the next day, echoed his words.

Pointing to deficit rainfall in the past three years as the natural cause for reservoirs running dry and the groundwater table falling, he assured that the city would be managed with 525 MLD (million litres per day) of water until November.

He later remarked that they were able to manage the city with only 450 MLD back in 2017.

The Minister appears to have been talking only about the water supplied by the state government’s Metro Water.

Not counting government buildings, hospitals, large hotels and shopping malls, high rise apartments with households ranging from 50 to 400 are bulk consumers of the private water supply market every day.

In fact, they consume the maximum share of water in Chennai city. And the Minister has not taken these into account during his interaction with the press.

The Lede decided to visit some such high rises to find out how they managed their water supply.

We found that these apartments have been wedded to private tankers since the beginning of this year itself.

Awaiting The Water Tankers

The Silver Park Apartments in T Nagar has been buying three water tankers daily, of 24,000 litres each starting this February from a private tanker water supplier.

The apartments originally met water needs from two bore wells, an open well and a regular Metro Water pipeline supply until January this year.

First the Metro Water supply stopped, then ground water resources went dry and then the Metro Water tankers too became irregular.

“With Metro Water pipeline supply becoming infrequent, we started booking Metro Water tankers to supplement our daily requirement,” S Natarajan, Secretary, Silver Parks apartment flat owners association told The Lede.

There are 142 households and a dozen commercial spaces for provisional stores and retailers in the apartment.

Assuming at least 500 litres per household per day, the daily water demand easily crosses 70,000 litres.

(The National Water Mission recommends an average of 150 litres per capita for daily consumption of urban households. At this rate, one family of four members in an apartment will consume 600 litres a day.)

However Metro Water which started to struggle with falling reservoir and ground water levels since January this year (water deficit is 500 million litres per day presently), could not continue to meet the huge demands of Silver Park apartments.

“Since February, even the Metro Water tanker became infrequent. We got constrained and we had to go for private water tankers,” Natarajan explained to The Lede.

By the end of May, they had already consumed over 6 lakh litres of water, spending almost 5 lakh rupees towards private tanker supply every month.

Silver Park though is not a one-off case.

Except a few high rise apartments, which source ground water from six to ten bore wells, the rest have placed private water suppliers on their regular pay roll.

Explaining the Demand Shock

Chennai’s Metro Water stopped pipeline supply in most areas last week. At present, Metro Water caters to people on alternate days in narrow streets, residential areas and housing boards in 3000 litre Sintex tanks placed on small trucks.

The apartments are at a safe distance from this “crude” exposure to the water crisis, which includes fighting for one’s rightful share of water every day.

But the high rises too are caught in a demand shock of their own - in the private water supplier market.

Prices for water are exorbitant and continue to rise steeply.

Natarajan says prices have increased two-fold in just three weeks.

“We are ready to pay despite increase in cost, but we need the water on time for it is more important than anything else,” he said.

Once groundwater sources of the suburbs started failing, private tankers have started moving far away to villages in neighbouring districts, looking for bore wells and open wells that yield some water.

The logistics and risk involved in extracting groundwater from agricultural land in districts like Kanchipuram and Tiruvallur, add to costs of the water reaching apartments in Chennai.

“Kovalam sub-basin situated east of the State Highway (SH 39) stands as a major source of water in the Chennai basin,” S Thirunavukarasu, retired PWD engineer told The Lede. “Earlier they were extracting from open wells and bore wells around Nanmangalam. Now they have moved further to Thazhambur and Kaaranai.” Both these areas are a little over 30 kilometres outside Chennai.

The convenience of free electricity for irrigation has only aided the increased pace of groundwater depletion, he added.

Residents of apartments though are completely dependent on private supplies and are not in a position to cut a deal with private agencies.

They settle for any rate, provided they are assured daily water supply.

The apartments in the city have been at the mercy of private water suppliers since January but the IT hub of OMR (Old Mahabalipuram Road) and the swanky high rises there are dependent on private water supply all through the year.

This is because the OMR area never had a Metro Water supply network in the first place.

Demand and costs shoot up every day but water availability only falls day by day.

An increasing demand over a dwindling supply has created a demand shock in the market.

“Suppliers are not ready enough to cater to existing customers while they try to expand their market. With time, there will be a rise in price and we have to bear with it,” Natarajan said.

The Lede has earlier reported on commercial ground water extraction by private firms and suppliers.

This supply market is exploitative and highly unregulated.

The Smaller Apartments

However, the exorbitant pricing by private water tankers which increased two-fold within a span of three weeks cannot be managed by smaller apartments with fewer than 50 households.

Last Sunday at a bank officers quarters in T Nagar, a bore well rigger was in operation. They had reached 400 feet underground by afternoon, but did not hit water. They had to retreat later. The water diviner however had predicted a good yield at 300 feet itself.

These smaller apartments which cannot afford the private tankers attempt to find solutions in their own lands by drilling deep bore wells.

Out of three instances that The Lede came across, only one bore well yielded water.

In an apartment on Kilpauk Garden Road, a bore well was sunk up to 400 feet, hitting water at that depth. This apartment also has an operational swimming pool in the midst of this crisis.

Another high rise residential complex along the Poonamallee High Road near Nehru Park Metro station has 9 bore wells out of which 5 are active and yielding water.

Maintenance offices in these apartments told The Lede that they have not yet become totally dependent on private suppliers.

Sustainable Solutions

Dr Veena Srinivasan, Convenor, Centre for Environment and Development at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), told The Lede, how drilling bore wells could be a futile exercise.

“Chennai has a sandy coastal shallow aquifer. It has a decent water bearing capacity due to alluvial sand deposits in contrast with Bengaluru which has hard rock forms. Thus during heavy downpours and floods, the aquifers could recharge at a fast pace and retreat with same pace during drought,” she said.

What is worse is the manner in which high rises have been allowed to come up, without allowing for ground water recharge.

Apartments are generally stacked adjacent to each other, with no open space in between with complete concretisation. There is little chance for percolation of rain water across the landscape.

In addition to this, the Chennai Corporation roads are not percolation friendly, with no space left for shoulders (open spaces on either side of roads for water to percolate).

Criticising the CMDA’s city planning, Thirunavukkarasu told The Lede - “While it is natural for a fast expanding city to adapt to vertical expansion in the form of high rise apartments, the CMDA (Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority) must follow rules and ethics while approving such projects.”

The city needs adaptive mechanisms, he says. “There is a need for waste water retreatment facilities in these apartments which would be able to recharge back 50% of used water into the ground and dual plumbing system should be brought in to use recycled water for flushing and other daily chores that don’t need fresh water.”

But flat residents feel it is not a feasible proposition. Kamalesh, Secretary, flat owners association of Devdarshan Apartments in Barnaby Road, Kilpauk said - “All our money and muscle is being spent towards ensuring daily water supply to our residents. It would not be an easy deal to switch over to such adaptations during the crisis,” he said.

What Government Says

V Kumar, Deputy Planner at the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) told The Lede about the CMDA’s water conservation plan.

He said that rain water harvesting has been the state policy for since 2003.

Apart from that, Energy Conservation Building Code norms (ECBC 2018) are yet to be implemented in the next CMDA Master plan.

They also have Environmental Impact Assessment norms, which are applicable for establishments with area greater than 20,000 square metres.

With the changing times, rainwater harvesting and lake restoration would bear fruit only during good monsoon seasons. With faltering ground water regulations in the country, there is no way to find out which agencies are exploiting the ground water resource.

High rise apartments with multiple bore wells also extract large quantum of groundwater without legal, social or environmental obligation to recharge part of the ground water extracted.

Changing times needs changes in water management practices.

Adaptation to water accounting and water budget must be given high priority in these times of severe water scarcity.

All the water sources both surface and groundwater should be accounted before planning usage and over exploitation of any water resources should be curtailed.

Like the quarries in the outskirts of Chennai which supplement our daily water needs, short term water supply sources should not be exploited.

Comprehensive regulation in using existing sources of water like cutting down dependence on fresh water for daily chores and replacing it with grey water (waste water which is treated), should be encouraged instead.

However CN Maheswaran, Managing Director of the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD) told The Lede that there is no working policy on water management which is focussed on water security and water budgeting.

Veena Srinivasan said that nearly 400 out of 500 litres of daily water consumption of a household that is released into the sewage network could be recycled, retreated and can be used for our daily chores in cities like Chennai.

She added that while cities like Cape Town in South Africa and Bengaluru started proper water management protocols to cut down daily water usage rationally, there was less awareness in the administration in the state.

“Bengaluru has implemented smart metering in its high rise, multi-storeyed buildings, to check and regulate the daily consumption of water,” she said.

It is to be noted here that one builder in Egmore has installed sewage treatment plant in the premises. The maintenance office told The Lede that they were able to cut down 50% of their daily demand, which they source from their bore wells and private water tankers.

A government official discussed with The Lede an effective water management system in cities.

Recommending dual plumbing system for apartments - one pipeline for fresh water and another for treated water - he explained rational reduction in water consumption by taking an apartment household for a fundamental unit.

Flushing (western toilet) and other daily chores which don’t need fresh water can be met with 100 litres of treated water approximately.

With proper sewage and waste water retreatment facilities, 50% of total usage in a day can be retreated and successfully recharged back to the ground.

Households which depend on Metro Water practise water budgeting far more effectively than those living in high rises.

With 5 to 8 plastic pots (10 litres per pot) they rationalise their usage and can go on for even two days during the summer.

With bulk consumers like high rise apartments consuming water in lakhs of litres every month with no rational interventions like reuse and retreatment of water, the state indeed does not seem concerned about the situation.

The Minister at the end of the press meet said that the state will be talking to the private water supplier association on price rise.

Dr Veena Srinivasan fears that the state is not yet ready neither to accept the impending crisis nor to adapt to climate change.

The Lede