Water woes in Andaman require creative solutions

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Port Blair, July 3 (ANI): The mention of Andaman Islands conjures up images of crystal clear skies, golden beaches and tranquil seas rich with marine life and coral reefs.

Though for the local residents, the picture is not quite so idyllic. Even if for an island in the Indian Ocean to face water shortage, seems a bit of an oxymoron but that is what the locals have been bearing with for many years.

The years 2002 to 2004 witnessed a poor rainfall in Andaman Islands. In 2002, the deficiency was disturbing, 341 millimetres of rainfall led to an acute water crisis.

In Port Blair, water is supplied once every third day. In some rural pockets, like Baratang in Middle Andaman it is worse. Regular piped water supply has been reduced to once in four days.

The biggest and most dependable source of fresh water today is in Rutland, Island the only hope for the people of south of Andaman after Dhanikhari Dam.

One of the Andaman islands, Rutland, forms the southern most main island of the Great Andaman archipelago and lies in the McPherson Strait.

Spanning an area of approximately 109.3 square km, it has coastline measuring some 60 kilometres. 90% of the island is covered with dense pristine forest largely undisturbed yet. And that virgin forest is the prime source of all the water that flows into the sea from five different points.

The water crisis now worsening over the years, boiled down to a simple question-how to reach the life-giving fresh water from Rutland island to the parched throats in Port Blair and other areas across south Andaman?

The authorities, sadly, instead of arriving at a clear-cut solution, have got inextricably stuck in a slew of proposals and the goal of supplying water remains as elusive as ever.

In 2003, the administration mooted a proposal called Rutland Water Supply Scheme which would entail an undersea pipeline to transport water from Rutland to Phongi Balu across McPherson Strait.

The initial survey work for the project was awarded to ubiquitous Water and Power Consultancy Services (India) Ltd (WAPCOS) but APWD( Andaman Public Works Department) sources have been tight-lipped about the outcome of the survey or the amount that was paid to WAPCOS.

The project again shot into prominence in 2007, after a good four years, when the worst water crisis happened. One of the proposals under consideration of the Administration was a bridge to connect Rutland and Phongi Balu, both for traffic and for a pipeline.

Some concrete decisions were taken; a pipeline in Rutland interlinking the five different sources construction of a 40,000-litre sump (tank) with pumping facilities at Phongi Balu.

The tank would be required to hold water in transit and crucial point of collection before being pumped into the Dhanikhari Dam. This would be the grid where water could then reach the parched areas.

However, much water has flowed down the Nile or in this case, the McPherson Strait since and none of the proposals have seen the light of the day.

The answer to this exercise in futility came rather unexpectedly. The Lt. Governor recently came up with a brainwave. Instead of such a long drawn out plan, which would require immense resources and time, why not ply water barges down the same route?

Not that other plans need to be shelved but this would immediately meet the need of the hour. With the deepening crises, it was apparent that water quantity in Dhanikhari Dam would not last till May 15 and thus immediate steps would be in order.

Of course, to transport mammoth quantities water from Rutland to Phongi Balu sump, one would need heavy-duty barges or large freight boats to transport water from.

This was an 'out-of-the-box' solution that seemed workable and hailed by many locals. "Barges will be the ideal mode of transporting water from one side to the other. After all you need it only for four months or at best five months of calm season" said Samir Acharya, Secretary, Society for Andaman and Nicobar Environment (SANE).

Responses from experts in related fields also reiterate the view.

"Towed barges might pose a little problem, not a serious one though, but a self-propelled barge would have no problem berthing and unberthing," said Shamshad Ali, a former Fisheries Survey of India official

Now it is up to the administration to take up the transportation of water through water barges on a war footing.

Given enough political will, it can be pulled off in the six months of monsoon. In fact, if the necessary logistical support is provided, even the much maligned APWD is capable of delivering.

A 250 tonnes barge takes two hours to load. It means in 10 hours of daylight it could make five trips and transport some 1,250 tonnes or 12.50 lakhs litres to the Dhanikhari Dam, a colossal quantity of water.

There is also the question of construction of the sump at Phongi Balu which would take another two to three months to meet the enhanced requirements of storing this quantity.

Essentially, all these factors or 'nodes in the water-chain' have to be operational before the project kicks off and shows the desired results.

Seven years down the line, the elusive fresh water is still in Rutland and the water shortage in Port Blair has reached alarming proportions.

According to Charkha features, with the water supply fluctuating between alternate day during monsoon and every third, fourth or fifth day during summer, the dream to boost tourism in the region would remain just as elusive as the promised waters from Rutland.

Given the urgency on one end and the unconventional wisdom of using water barrages at the other, what is to be seen is whether the Administration is ready to put aside its past mistakes or not? by Govinda Raju (ANI)

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