As a coastal city with around 3600 water bodies, three river systems and arguably adequate rainfall, Chennai has the potential to be the ‘water capital’ of Asia—i.e. an exemplary city in this part of the world that showcases innovative and carefully considered water resource management. Historically, water in Chennai and Tamil Nadu was managed by a traditional ery system, which ensured that the adequate but seasonal water supply from northeast monsoons was available to all throughout the year, including during drought years, while also mitigating for flood risk. As such, the ery system is to this day recognized as an engineering and management marvel, with many lessons to learn from. Nonetheless, unplanned development and poor water management in Chennai over the years have rendered the ery system dysfunctional, while also leading to the current state of affairs wherein the city struggles at any given time with either too little water (in the form of droughts) or too much (in the form of floods)—with detrimental effects on people, infrastructure and livelihoods.
Further, Chennai’s water system is at risk from climate change, which is likely to manifest through extreme precipitation events—resulting in more droughts and floods—sea level rise and increasing temperatures which in and of itself is likely to exacerbate existing water system challenges.
Chennai’s water woes have been further shaped by institutional and data fragmentation, siloed thinking and action, lack of human and financial resources and a failure to recognize that water systems traverse natural and socio-technical environments, therefore requiring a holistic approach for efficient management.
Post 2015 floods, city authorities and citizens have become increasingly sensitive to the complexity of water systems. There is growing recognition about how water related challenges such as availability, affordability, pollution, flood mitigation, and ground water recharge are interconnected.
Simultaneously, the city is beginning to recognize that droughts, temperature rise and sea level rise are longer term events that manifest over many years. Therefore, these events requiring longer term adaptation measures that integrate efforts to protect, restore and conserve water resources with efficient urban land-use planning, solid waste management and stringent monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.
Chennai’s water mission is to carve a resilient future around the city’s water resources. This entails more than bouncing forward during times of water-related disruptions; it involves building linkages and initiating integrated efforts on a continual basis so that solutions to Chennai’s water problems are holistic and sustainable in the long run.