From Local to Hyperlocal—The Water Conundrum

It’s been almost two weeks since the students at the Asian College of Journalism have settled down and they are already witnessing first-hand the infamous water shortage problem of Chennai. “It’s not only ACJ but Chennai has a water problem as well. It does get difficult for us to store water in our buckets and use it productively. Also, the water has a weird muddy colour to it,” says Oindrilla, a student at ACJ. She further states that the water is rather salty and causes a lot of throat problems for many. Besides this, students have also reported being late for class because of no water flow in the mornings.

The water shortage problem also poses a major inconvenience to those with the six-room occupancy. “The water doesn’t start till 7 or 8 am, and there are six of us in one room so it gets very inconvenient,” mentions Harsh.

However, this isn’t a one-sided issue of negligence on the part of the management. Some students do feel that it is up to them to take responsibility to conserve and utilise water judiciously. “It’s actually up to us to save water because there are a lot of people who leave the taps open when the water is not running and when the water comes on again, the whole tank empties,” says Oindrilla.

ACJ is equipped with a motor that supplies water throughout the college as well as two to three sams or storage tanks. The administration states that water scarcity is bound to occur—there are nearly 150 students residing in the hostel and the faculty comes to the college between 9 and 5, so water usage is at its peak during the working hours. Regarding students leaving the taps open, the administration says, “We haven’t put up any notice so we tell students to pass on the message to keep the taps closed when they leave their bathrooms.”

This issue reflects the wider water problem that Chennai faces. In June, there were media reports of a reduction in the groundwater table. “There is water shortage mostly in the months of summer when the metro water system is not as effective as you’d want it to be, but people have circumvented it by installing bore wells wherein they harvest the ground water. But that again leads to depleting water table levels,” says Zahaan a student at ACJ and a local resident.

Eventually, it comes down to how we conserve water and the environment at large, and this effort has to stem from individuals, governments and institutions.

Pallikaranai: Conserving Biodiversity

Much has been written about the Pallikaranai marshlands, a site famous for its diverse ecological habitat of plant and animal life. In recent years, the site has been in the news as its viability is under threat. A visit to the marshlands and you will know why.

Pallikaranai Wetlands

Pallikaranai Wetlands

Located near the wetlands is a 200 acres garbage dumping site. Senthil is a Conservancy Inspector working at the garbage dump yard at Pallikaranai. His job is to oversee operations at the yard and to ensure that the garbage being gathered is properly weighed. He says that about 150 acres of that land has already been filled with garbage, which approximates to about 2,500 to 3,000 tonnes.

Another hazard that the dump yard faces, he says, is frequent fires which is caused by methane gas. The gas develops because of the excessive amount of garbage that is collected there. Besides this, sewage water is also accumulated from the neighbouring areas and treated near the yard which then connects back to the city’s main drainage system.

Sewage treatment plant at Perungudi garbage dump

Sewage treatment plant at Perungudi garbage dump

The issue of preserving the Pallikaranai marshlands has been taken up by a consortium of NGOs led by Care Earth, an environmental conservation and advocacy group. In a study, Management Plan Conservation of Pallikaranai Marsh, the consortium has highlighted the various ways in which the marshlands are being destroyed because of ‘man-made activities’. The consequence of such destruction, they say, results is increased flooding in the area.

The importance of this marshland cannot be further underscored. In an effort to curtail the degradation of the wetlands, the consortium has put down several recommendations—setting up of a coordinating agency to conserve the wetlands; according the marshlands a Ramsar site; promoting education and awareness regarding Pallikaranai; and developing a ‘Detailed Management Plan’. These recommendations serve as “a reconciliation of conservation and development goals”.

While preservation efforts are being undertaken by such advocacy groups, the government too is doing its bit: the garbage at the dump is divided into biodegradable and non-biodegradable trash. Rather than setting up a treatment plant, the Chennai Corporation calls in rag pickers to segregate the rubbish. They regularly collect all the biodegradable trash, thereby helping in recycling.

Garbage Dump, Perungudi

Garbage Dump, Perungudi

Given that approximately 50 lakh tonnes of garbage are dumped in the yard, the Chennai Corporation is now planning to close the present dump yard site and start two new ones outside the city limits. The fate of the Pallikaranai marsh is yet uncertain, but with such conservation attempts from both private and public enterprises, there is much hope for the future of Pallikaranai.