Chennai swings from a flood one year to a water crisis the next without realising that the manner in which the city has abused water to grow is at the heart of both problems.
Real estate tycoons mined the sand to fuel Chennai’s real estate boom, lowering groundwater levels in the region. Bottling units, cola companies and alcohol distilleries mined the water to supply rural and urban consumers. “We live so close to Palar, but even I have a water problem. The water in my tap is orange in colour, like Mirinda, and I am forced to pay 10 rupees for 20 litres of drinking water,” Manimaran says.
Chennai’s growth has come at the cost of water and the spaces that nurture water. Between 1980 and 2010, the built-up area in Chennai grew from 47 sq. km to 402 sq. km, even as wetlands declined from 186 to 71.5 sq. km, according to one study by Care Earth, an NGO in the city.
The city ran out of water more than a century ago. In 1876, the British took over a small ery in an agricultural town called Puzhal, now at the northwestern edge of the metropolis. From its original 500 million cubic feet (mcft), its capacity was increased in steps to 3,300 mcft. This tank, since renamed the Red Hills reservoir, was the first of many centralised water projects.
As technology advanced, local efforts to maintain local landscapes and the subsurface as an infrastructure for water declined – as did the people’s dependence on local water and relationship to the land. Chennai swings from a flood one year to a water crisis the next without realising that the manner in which the city has abused water to grow is at the heart of both problems. Capitalising on the people’s disconnect with nature, governments and private profiteers used disasters and crises as opportunities to usher in socially oppressive, big-budget and hare-brained projects like desalination and interlinking of rivers.
If Chennai wishes to have a future, it must shrink in size and population. That must be done not by forcing people out. Instead, the government should create land-friendly economic opportunities for people willing to migrate out to Tamil Nadu’s vast hinterland. It is futile to try and engineer one’s way out of ecological collapse. Local landscapes must be healed. Water must be harvested where it falls.