India: continuing to row in the cloaca

India: continuing to row in the cloaca

The Adyar River and the other two rivers of Chennai, at this time of year, consist almost entirely of sewage. Photo: Gilbert Kolonko

In Chennai, South India, an efficient solution is already being practiced to end India’s water crisis. But it prefers to invest in questionable coarse projects while sewage rivers and cesspool lakes proliferate

In front of me dense, green grass, as far as the eye could see. To that end, a sign posted by the Tamil Nadu Wildlife Conservation Authority advises people not to put plastic in the local Pallikanarai-wetlands. But already the nose says that something stinks here.

A view to the left shows a sewer that discharges a black brute into the wetlands. The weiben points in the distance are also none Spot Bill Ducks, which according to the sign of the nature conservation authority should be hidden in the grass, but high-rise buildings and factory buildings. Directly behind me, an avalanche of cars on the four-lane Tambaram Main Road races into the next traffic jam in this metropolis of 10 million people.

Four kilometers further in the direction of the city center lies the Velachery Lake. A ring of houses around the lake indicates why its surface area has shrunk from 107 hectares to 20. It could still be a source of drinking water with millions of liters of submerged water, but a sewer discharges its fetid broth into the lake.

Empty water reservoir

Chennai’s wetlands used to cover more than 200 square kilometers. By 1980, they had shrunk moderately and still had a surface area of 186.3 kmĀ². Today, they have only 15 percent of their former coarseness, as a study by the CareEarth Trust shows. The main reasons are the boom of IT companies in the south of Chennai and the growth of the real estate market in general.

"For more than two decades, scientists and environmentalists have been pointing out that Chennai is heading for a water catastrophe", says Dr. Avilash Roul from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) from Chennai. "But it took the severe flooding in 2015 for those responsible to wake up." In the past, the wetlands with their lakes and inlets had absorbed a large part of the water and thus alleviated the flood damage. They had also served as a water reservoir, explains Avilash.

But this summer, almost all of Chennai’s natural and man-made water reservoirs were empty. Even the 235 kilometer distant Veeranam-Lake from which Chennai otherwise meets 35 percent of its water needs. The metropolis had to be supplied with trains full of drinking water from the neighboring state of Kerala.

Monsoon and wells

"It is true that the summer monsoon came very late last year. Also that the north-east monsoon, which is more important for Chennai, was weak. But when the entire city is thoughtlessly concreted over for years and the rainwater can no longer seep through the ground into the groundwater, the water crisis is a logical consequence", Avilash says calmly.

When the rains do not come, the poorest Chennai suffer, and when they do come, they suffer too. Photo: Gilbert Kolonko

There is a reason why his young colleague Akshaya Ayyangar is more optimistic: "I’ve only been working in Chennai for five years in the field of water management, and I can see that progress has been made since 2015." On the government side, too, there are now capable experts with whom she can cooperate well. The slow progress is due to one main reason. "Es ist ein Koordinations- und Kommunikationsproblem", says the technologist.

At least 13 state agencies must cooperate on water ies. Only rarely does one authority know what the other is doing.

Akshaya Ayyangar

Then Ayyangar names one of the many small problems: "Only about 10 percent of households in Chennai have a water meter." Water wastage is the result.

But immediately the young woman is optimistic again and says with a wink: "By the way, we haven’t had a water problem here in the neighborhood for years." Then she sends me two streets away to a gentleman who is responsible for it.

"But you are late", says Sekhar Raghavan of the organization Rain Center to the reason. "The BBC was already here in June." "Maybe I’ll be the first to arrive before the next crisis", I answer. In reply, there is the laughter of someone who has been used to fighting windmills for 25 years without giving up. "Oh, die wird es mit Sicherheit geben, auch wenn sie nicht wieder zu einer Weltnachricht werden sollte", says Raghavan.

The current northeast monsoon brought more rain than last year, but it was still less than the average of previous years.

Sekhar Raghavan

Then Raghavan takes me to the courtyard of his landlord’s house. "When this pipe is full, it means: the first rain has cleaned the roof terrace. Then the rainwater flows into the other pipe and from there into an underground 50.000-liter water tank."

But the rainwater collection system that Raghavan designed two decades ago for the whole of Chennai is even simpler. "Normally, the rainwater from the concrete floor of the courtyard would flow onto the street and from there into the river." You can smell it from here.

A sewer ends up in Chennai’s remaining wetlands. Photo: Gilbert Kolonko

Then Raghavan points to some rough drains and leads me to a well. "We collect rainwater and pipe it into this well, from where it can seep into the groundwater." Before a second well on the farm, he says: "And here we can extract the groundwater after it has been naturally purified."

Finally, Raghavan explains why the 2019 water crisis was completely unnecessary: "After the water crises of 2001 to 2003, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Jayaram Jayalalithaa, also asked me for advice. Shortly thereafter, her government passed a comprehensive rainwater storage law."

Money would rather be invested in rough projects

For Raghavan, the fact that not much has happened since then is due to several reasons: "The ministers around Jayalalithaa showed no interest, because they themselves had nothing to gain from it. It is preferable to invest money in rough projects, such as desalination plants and dams." Another problem, he says, is that it rained exceedingly well after the 2003 crisis. "Apparently, people need a crisis to get moving," Raghavan says with a smile.

Jayaram Jayalalithaa was not the only one who asked Raghavan for advice. "Two years ago, Arvind Kejriwal asked me to solve Delhi’s water crisis with the help of a comprehensive rainwater harvesting system", he tells.

But why the chief minister of the Union Territory of Delhi has made little progress so far – even though New Delhi is also expected to run out of groundwater this year – Raghavan hints with a few box moves: "Arvind is too busy ‘bickering’ with Narendra Modi." In Delhi, the chief minister’s responsibilities overlap with those of Modi’s central government.