Why Chennai cannot chase the monsoons

Lakes and reservoirs in the southern Indian city are barren; the dry spell springs eternal, the wait for water endless.


Allan Jacob

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Published: Wed 26 Jun 2019, 9:15 PM

Last updated: Wed 26 Jun 2019, 11:16 PM

I have received a video clip that goes into detail about Chennai's water crisis. Celebrities including Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio have chipped in with their feeling-sorry routine and starry-eyed solutions.
"Only rain can save Chennai from this situation," said the actor on Instagram with a picture of people near a well. Special prayers called yagnas are being organised for some blessings; protests are taking place and politicians are cashing in on the long dry spell. Last year the world's attention was on parched Cape Town in South Africa. The focus this year is on the southern Indian metropolis, the place I once called home. I have an inexplicable affection for the city alongside a strange sorrow from some past personal demons that I am trying best to exorcise.
I can empathise with the suffering folks in Chennai because I lived there for 15 years. It's the only city that stirs a dark, hidden emotion that I fear will unsettle me and kill my spirit. I know the place like the palm of my hand; my all-weather friends live there, but I didn't visit for more than decade. Why? I dare not answer that question.
I built my career there, came to grips with relationships, loved and lost and found myself again. But Chennai had drained me by the time I left her behind. I tried to forget but this year's drought streamed her back to my consciousness.
The Indian city's dry season lasts from February till September after which the often violent North East Monsoon returns with thunder and lightning. Sometimes it gathers deadly speed and turns into cyclones, dumping rain over the place and swamping it into submission like it did two years ago.
The retreating monsoons are still distant and the city has struggled without rain for more 200 days (it received some relief from showers last week). India's Detroit and home to the country's car industry is now crying for relief. India's cultural capital and its industrious people need water to nourish their ideas. Yet, the recurring images beaming across the media are of plastic pots, water-tankers and long queues of people - the same haunting pictures from two decades ago when I took up by my first newspaper job.
So uncle Josie, a retired Indian Navy and Merchant Navy engineer, who sent me the video clip was a resident there some two decades ago when I cut my teeth in journalism. He lived in a swanky villa in Kilpauk, near Ayanavaram, an old residential leafy part of what was then Madras (Chennai's former name) where the taps never went dry. The house had a well and a humongous underground tank known as a 'sump'.
I remember heading to work from his place and watching people gather at hubs along the way for water-tankers to arrive. The roads leading to those 'water junctions' would be blocked for kilometres; cops would be called when scuffles broke out; there was pushing and shoving for the precious resource which was used to cook, clean, rinse, and wash before heading out to work.
The tankers, those beasts of succour returned later in the evening as I headed home from office on my bike. Crowds would swell and melees and skirmishes were common. Once back at the villa, I remember people from slums nearby pleading with us for water. Pots on heads, men, women, and children would gather at the gate in the summer. Some would be ushered into the compound and directed to a tap near the gate. "Fill up and get out quickly would be the polite advice or I will unleash my periya naay (big dog) on you," my cousin Godwin would tell them. Spike the Labrador was as tame and domesticated as could be. He was no watchdog material but looked menacing in his coat of black, but those folks didn't know that. 'Crowd control bro,' my cousin would say. "These guys will squat here all night if we don't enforce discipline." We would laugh. I don't find our joke at their expense funny anymore as I consider Chennai's decades of distress.
I don't remember weeping for the city when I left for Dubai. I didn't have any fears left, but those fears have returned, and it's because of the dry spell that springs eternal, the wait for water endless.
Chennai has four lakes that have all gone barren. The Buckingham Canal (also called the Cochrane Canal) dug up by the British as a water source in 1806 to beat the famine that gripped the land now carries trash to the two main rivers, the Cooum and Adyar. I remember passing those three waterways and the stench remained with me for miles. Worse, Chennai has lost 33 per cent wetlands due to rampant construction activity in the last 10 years.
Last year, the BBC listed 11 cities that face a drinking water crisis. I was surprised Chennai was not among them. The World Bank defines water scarcity if a particular area receives less than 1,000 cubic metres of fresh water per person a year. There are no figures on how much water a Chennai resident receives annually.
India's Central Water Commission estimates that the country needs 3,000 billion cubic metres of water annually and gets 4,000 billion cubic metres from the monsoon, which is more than what is required. Most of the water, however, simply flows into the Bay of Bengal.
Rain-tracking has become a national activity in India. Remnants from the South West Monsoon from June to July and the full complement from the North East Monsoon from September to December is what Chennai expects, but lakes and reservoirs in the city cannot hold them for long and water bodies have become garbage dumps. The city's politicians must clean up their act, literally. The Indian central government has rolled out an ambitious river-linking project. Southern states should join this venture without delay. Simply chasing the monsoon and watching its bounty being wasted is a crying shame.
- allan@khaleejtimes.com

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