As a little boy, I remember carrying plastic pots of water from tankers in Madras, as the city was called in the eighties. The tag line was: 'Think Madras, think water scarcity'. For this very reason, few families ever had relatives visiting them during the vacation! Think Madras, think also floods. That was the cruel irony. India's fourth largest metropolitan city faced a water crisis as well as severe inundation during the monsoon. It took political will - that came from the present Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa to change this dubious distinction. The catchphrase - rain water harvesting-turned Government-backed initiative turned-people's movement has today ensured that this South Indian city is free from the chronic water scarcity of the past.
Today, in peak summer, Sita Laxminarayana, a senior citizen in Mylapore, South Chennai, has enough water for her terrace garden; where she grows flowers for her pujas and vegetables and spices for her kitchen. The hospitable aunty in the colony probably remembers her late husband humming an improvised Jim Reeves number: "I Can Promise You A Rose Garden." The water is sourced entirely from her well that even in this sweltering heat, is more than half its capacity. A dry well was not an oxymoron but a reality in the late nineties in Chennai! A city that was synonymous, even notorious, for chronic water scarcity. A story of parched land and throats and fights for that precious commodity, that had to be rationed through water tankers, captured in a Tamil film 'Thaneer, Thaneer'.
Enter Jayalalithaa. In her second innings as Chief Minister, in 2002, she chanted the Rain Water Harvesting mantra. The logic was simple. Why allow rain water to flood roads and end up into the sea instead of saving it in every home and office? As it was her brainchild, the State machinery went into over drive to make it happen. An ordinance was promulgated; soon replaced by an Act making rain water harvesting compulsory throughout Tamil Nadu. Non-compliance meant fines and disconnection of water and sewerage connections. So residents like Sita, installed simple structures; percolation pits and pipes from rooftops in their homes to save rainwater. The cost of about Rs 3000 was well worth it. Not a drop of rain water now leaves her home. Earlier, her family had to buy about 4000 litres from private suppliers every week. Sita's in-laws, who are from Karnataka, used to find it very strange!
And when the monsoon failed Chennai in 2003, and storage in the four reservoirs at Red Hills, Poondi, Sholavaram and Chembarambakkam plummeted, the effect of Jayalalithaa's far-sighted rain water harvesting model came to the city's rescue.
Consider the pattern. Chennai receives an average annual rainfall of 1300 millimetres. Most of this rainfall is from the North East monsoon that is between October and December - that occurs in heavy short spells of a few days or even a few hours. How can I forget the floods on October 26, 2005, when the city received 220 millimetres of rain in two hours! As I drove my Gypsy to work that day, the vehicle's high ground clearance came in handy as water came up to my headlights! On an average, the city gets rain spread over 300 hours. Do the math. When 1300 millimetres of rainfall is harvested within the city over an area of 174 square kilometres, a yield of 125 litres per person per day, is possible, that will almost make residents self-sufficient. At an individual level, if the entire rainfall is harvested throughout the year on a one ground plot or 2400 square feet, a yield of 700 litres of water per day is possible. If there are five members in a household, that works out to 140 litres per person per day; enough for bathing and washing clothes and utensils. Dr. Shekhar Raghavan, Director of Rain Centre, an NGO that helped create awareness attributes the success of the scheme to the combined strength of both. "Usually it's a case of activists versus the government. Here it was both joining hands."
Jayalalithaa's double dose - of enforcement and awareness - was one of the factors that helped solve Chennai's chronic water scarcity. No new construction plan was sanctioned without a rain water harvesting completion certificate. And for a change, the government practiced what it preached by installing rain water harvesting structures in all government buildings and flyovers. Today, as the Chennai Corporation is in the process of constructing storm water drains across 560 kilometres, the Commissioner Dr. D.Karthikeyan claims that a rain water harvesting provision is being made every 30 metres.
What a trickledown effect this had, quite literally, as well! As the experiment became a people's movement, many big builders like the Ceebros Managing Director Subba Reddy, who today, owns the eco-friendly Rain Tree hotels as well, ensured that the rain water harvesting plants in their projects were planned well and effective; and not mere show pieces.
The transformation of the city has not been restricted to the four reservoirs that serve as a barometer of the water table but has also brought the 29 temple tanks alive; all over again. If you want tangible proof of the impact of rain water harvesting, just look at temple tanks. The Kapali temple tank used to be bone dry and I remember seeing boys playing cricket on it about 10 or 12 years ago. Today, it is full to the brim.
The proof of rain water harvesting lies in the water table. In some areas, it has risen by about 10 to 15 metres. The quality of ground water has also vastly improved. But not all homes installed proper structures. A study in 2005 revealed that at least 40 per cent of buildings in both commercial and residential areas had done mere window dressing just to escape punitive action. But with a sizeable chunk of harvesting systems working, the results have been encouraging. Geo Hydrologists like Saravanan vouch for a drastic reduction in the iron and saline content of water after rainwater harvesting kicked in.
In politically volatile Tamil Nadu, regime changes are characterised by reversal of decisions. Rain Water Harvesting has weathered many a political storm. So while the rest of India suffers a double whammy in summer - water scarcity and power shortage, Chennai is sitting pretty, at least on the water front.