Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Pramila Krishnan

Desalination plant affects fishermen

Chennai: Environmentalists and residents living next to the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board’s (CMWSSB) desalination plant at Nemmeli, 35 km from the city, complain that their quality of life has declined greatly ever since the Board decided to more than double its production to supply water to households.
The plant, which started functioning in February, has a capacity of 100 million litres per day (mld) which the Water Board authorities aim to increase to 250 mld. R. Masilamani, 53, is one of many aggrieved fishermen who points to the problems. Their catch of fish, their staple food, has reduced. 
“Our ice plant, community hall and a few houses close to the shore, have fallen down. We are witnessing a disaster in our village now,” he says, adding that the plant was releasing brine on to the ocean bed. When he and 19 other fishermen protested about this, they were put in prison for a month in May.
Green activist Nithyanand Jayaraman, who works on coastal zone protection projects, says that the plant is neither economically nor environmentally viable. “Desalination plants are mainly operated in countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel where fresh water resources are scarce. Instead of conserving the local water bodies and aquifers, we continue to invest in desalination plants which are not viable.”
He says that the beach area in Nemmeli had already been eroded and the residue from the plant’s overflow pipe had killed marine life. His question is to do with why marine livelihoods were being sacrificed for desalination when the government could take other steps to conserve water bodies in Chennai.  
Desalination plant Superin­tending Engineer C.R.Yogesh­waran said that the water was drawn one km from the sea and the residue released 600 m away from the shore. “Residue will become normal sea water before it reaches the top layer of the sea,” he explains.
Erosion had been arrested and initiatives were on to control environmental damage, he adds. According to a top official, the environment impact assessment study was conducted before commissioning the plant.
Multipronged plan needed to tackle city water woes
The government can solve the city’s water woes by first fixing its leaky pipelines, improving rain water harvesting systems and raising the water tariff rather than allotting vast sums of money to new water supply projects. This is the conclusion that Ph.D. scholar Veena Srinivasan has made after doing five years of research on Chennai’s water crisis at Stanford University, USA.
The research included, groundwork, such as interacting with the residents of Chennai, tanker operators, government officials and documenting the water supply and drought hit areas in Chennai. Veena has explored scenarios of what the city’s water supply may look like in 2025, using reasonable projections of population, land use and income growth.
Speaking to DC over the phone she said, “While the rich are allowed to draw unlimited amounts of water as they have a sump facility at home, poor families which live without a pipe connection are forced to buy water from private firms or to wait in line to fill their pots whenever the metro tankers arrive.
Water should be metered and the poor provided water at hugely subsidised rates.” She said that good quality water should be supplied for drinking, cooking and dish-washing while low-quality water or ground water could be utilised for non-potable needs.
Talking about desalination plants, she said, “Leave alone the environmental degradation they cause to the marine ecosystem, the government has to pump in huge sums of money for their continuous operation. It is more expensive than any other existing water supply models operated in the city.”
Pointing out that leakage of water in the pipelines was estimated to be between 15 and 35 per cent depending on the zone, she said, “Most developing world cities suffer from pipeline losses as high as 50 per cent compared to as low as 5 per cent in the world’s best run utilities. Unless the leakages are fixed, efficient water supply would continue to be unachievable for the government.”
Though rain water harvesting was laudable, she said that the system remained as enhanced aquifer recharge rather than a collection of rain water in cisterns for end use. “Without harvesting, only an estimated 9 per cent of rain water in Chennai makes it to the aquifer; the rest runs off into the ocean,” she pointed out.
She reiterated that the way out for Chennai was to adopt a multi-pronged strategy involving raising water rates, repairing pipes harvesting the rain water.