Lessons to learn from the Chennai water crisis

A massive number of lessons can always be learned from any crisis. Only when the problem reaches a new high in terms of its intensity, the problem itself becomes so acute and throws up new challenges. Chennai's present water is a big lesson for the common man. It is also a big lesson in urban development. Some dimensions of the same are sought to be discussed in this article.


Chennai, the fourth largest city of India, has grown by leaps and bounds. The New Chennai plan, officially announced by the State Government makes it the second largest urban conglomeration after Mumbai. However, there are problems galore, even with the existing infrastructure. In spite of so many pluses in Chennai's favor, the present water crisis has damaged its reputation so badly. What are the various lessons? This article seeks to analyze the main issues in some detail.

Chennai has spread in the three directions. In the fourth direction, the development is limited, as the sea limits the scope of development, per se. Yet, the suburbs are still very well developed, and outside the forty-kilometer radius, the kind of development that is going on is massive. Yet, the main problem is water. The actual magnitude of the problem is severe in North Chennai than it is in the South Chennai. The State Government has also neglected the development of the North, for some reason or the other. Of late, most parts of North Chennai are also witnessing the growth of a tall order. Yet, the lessons in this direction are a) Need to plan for water resources more scientifically b) Maximize water recharge facilities c) Make rain-water harvesting compulsory d ) Set up desalination plants all over e) Involve the private sector f) Set up citizen committees for garbage management and g) Make encroachment a criminal offense.

Need to plan for water resources more scientifically

If there is one State Government that is corrupt so badly, it is the State Government in Tamil Nadu. Water is a multi-billion dollar business in Chennai and a city of 1.4 crore citizens ( the core city only) cannot be held to ransom. The main reason is the State Government's laxity in not enforcing anything on the private parties who have literally eaten up all the water resources. If one calculates the new multi-storied buildings in the heart of the city in the past ten years and then also calculate how deep the bore wells are, the answer would be clear. The groundwater levels have gone up to 1000 square foot or more. This kind of exploitation simply makes life miserable for those who go without water.

Some years ago, the Madras Metropolitan Development Authority (MMDA), as it was then called, had a restriction that was very good. No builder can build no more than four stories. This rule was relaxed for strange reasons. One particular building that came up near the largest bus station in Asia called the Koyembedu Bus Station, came up with a 17 storied structure. Chennai residents would look up and feel proud. That pride is now misplaced. In the prestigious IT corridor called the Old Mahabalipuram Road, near the Sea, the new structures are all minimum of twenty storied buildings. These monsters all depend on water, brought through tankers. Today, when there is a drought due to a bad monsoon last year, all these buildings are facing a huge water shortage as the wells supplying the drinking water, have all dried up. These monsters, some of which are more than even thirty storied buildings, have changed the face of the metro -- for the worse. The State Government should immediately limit the number of stories to just ten. And the sources of water should be more scientifically managed.

Maximize water recharge facilities

With fabulous institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, it should be possible to have technologies where the water used in bathrooms and restrooms is recycled for use in restrooms, after a purification process. One does understand that this technology is already available. Imagine what savings in terms of water will occur when this happens. It should be made compulsory for all multistoried buildings, more than just two floors. And the maximum number of floors in the suburbs should be only two. This has to be ruthlessly enforced. Even the likes of Godrej, the famous group from Mumbai, have put up twenty storied monsters in a suburb called Poonamalee, where the water resources are quite good. This has to be immediately stopped. The water recharge facilities should be made compulsory.

Make rain-water harvesting compulsory

The late Chief Minister, Jayalalitha, made rainwater harvesting compulsory. For some strange reason, in later years, the greedy builders did not give any importance to this. When it rains, the lakes and ponds do get filled up. However, the massive degradation is the root cause of all misery. There is a need to plant lakhs of new trees, particularly in areas that are very near the water resources. One has to just go to Kerala to study the conservation of nature. None of their places goes bone dry in summer. This is because they preserve nature. Rainwater harvesting should be made compulsory.

Set up desalination plants all over

The Nation-State of Singapore has done it. The huge metropolis of Dubai has done it. We have several models where the desalination plants work and work so beautifully. In fact, the previous DMK Government came up with a novel scheme of converting all the waste ( both domestic and industrial) into electricity. Such a scheme should be put in place immediately. And we need some fifty more desalination plants, for a city of the size of Chennai.

Involve the private sector

In Chennai, the involvement of the private Corporate Sector in city planning and development is a big zero. There have been some new developments. So many new bridges have been constructed. The ring roads are fabulous. However, the new flats and apartments, all coming up with private sector development, have completely neglected the private Corporate Sector in the city's development. With vast monetary resources, the likes of the Rs.60,000 crore TVS group would also do their bit in tree plantation, desilting of lakes and ponds, making water resources safer and even in waste management. For example, such groups would happily contribute to clearing the garbage and converting the garbage into agricultural manure. The involvement of the private sector is critical.

Set up citizen committees for garbage management

Allied to the above problem, the common citizens also have a role to play. The garbage could be collected and put into pits in the corner of an open place, like the playground in a Government school or college. It is common knowledge that such waste can be converted into agricultural manure. It is learned that the State Government is already doing this. However, if it is decentralized, the bins will not overflow. Since the waste bins always overflow, the garbage collection and management has gone for a big toss. Such simple methods should be done everywhere.

Make encroachment a criminal offense

If there is a total ban on encroachment in any form, the likes of Chennai city, will be far better. The encroachment of so many lakes and ponds has made life miserable now. This should change. We need far better laws to totally prevent encroachment in any form. More so, of any water resource. We should give the lawbreakers, criminal punishment.


Chennai's present water crisis can become a big lesson for any urban planner. Most of the atrocities committed in the name of development have resulted in massive encroachment.
In other cities, the problem may be the same. Chennai can offer useful lessons too. The Government of India should also look into the city's problems and help it evolve solutions. The State Government cannot do everything.

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Author: DR.N.V. Srinivasa Rao08 Jul 2019 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 6

As usual a very good article from the author. The points he has suggested are very valid for all the places and not for Chennai alone. Chennai is facing the problem today, tomorrow many places are going to face the same situation. So one should learn lessons from the present Chennai problem and be proactive. It is of no use applying Burnol after the fingers are burned. It is wise to see that your body is safe before going near a fire.

I will give importance to the plantation. Plantation should be made mandatory for giving permission for construction. There should be heavy punishment for cutting the trees.

The seawater treatment is the one option left with the people now. The requirement of the water is to be assessed and based on that water treatment plants near the seashores should be established so that the wastewater will again go into the sea.

Soak pits are another answer to this problem. Every house should plan for stopping the rainwater and see that it will go into the soak pit which will help in increasing the groundwater level. All multi-storied buildings and big buildings should have a plan of rainwater harvesting and it should be made compulsory.

Sattelite township development is another answer to this water crisis, I feel.

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