Trashing Water is Good Business For Water Companies

By Nityanand Jayaraman
India Resource Center
March 25, 2002

In Chennai, a major port city in southern India, two sister companies, French multinationals Onyx and Vivendi, are working at cross-purposes. While Vivendi is in partnership with civic authorities to convert scarce fresh water from a public service to a commercial product, Onyx collects the city's garbage and dumps it in one of the most important freshwater ecosystems in the city.


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Chennai, earlier known as Madras, is a city in the throes of a perennial human-made water crisis. Over the last few decades, the city grew its lakes and tanks were built upon, water courses were blocked, rivers were converted into cesspools of human waste and industrial effluent, and residents and industries sucked the earth dry by sinking deeper borewells running more powerful motors.

Amazingly, experts maintain that if what remains of the citys vast network of tanks and natural lakes is taken care of, the city can be self-sufficient in water and even meet future needs. The question, though, is if the water sources will be taken care of.

The outlook is depressing, especially because the same players entrusted with improving the hygiene and sanitation in the city also stand accused of degrading a large and critical freshwater wetland in the city.

In March 2000, C.E.S. Onyx, a Chennai-based company set up by Onyx, won a contract with the Chennai Municipal Corporation to "manage" the garbage and street litter from three key areas of the city. At a cost of Rs. 650,000 (US$13,700), the company collects and disposes at least 1000 tons of garbage everyday in and around the freshwater wetlands of Pallikaranai towards the south of the city.

Onyx is the garbage management arm of the $40 billion French multinational Vivendi Environment which has interests in water, transportation, communications and energy. Vivendi is also the largest water company in the world.

Onyx has won praises from many Chennai residents for cleaning the streets. For many of these residents, what happens to the garbage after it leaves their streets is no problem of theirs.

Poisoning a Lifeline

Barely 5 kilometers from Onyx's office in Chennai, Vivendi has its office in Metrowater, the city-owned water utility. Vivendi has a special consultancy with Metrowater to help improve the management of water supply and delivery to Chennaiites. K.A. Joseph, Vivendi's general manager in Chennai, says "You can say our work is to show Metrowater how to convert water from a service operation to a commercial operation have more water, sell more water." According to Joseph, "to have more water," it is imperative to preserve existing water resources and minimize waste and leakages.

The outlook is depressing, especially because the same players entrusted with improving the hygiene and sanitation in the city also stand accused of degrading a large and critical freshwater wetland in the city.

Onyx claims to be one of the world's leaders in the management of industrial and household wastes. According to Onyx's communication officer Vidya Swaminathan, the company will bring in state-of-the-art technology and expertise in the field of waste management.

However, Onyx's operations in Chennai remain medieval. "We collect the wastes from three zones in Chennai and dump it in Perungudi," says Swaminathan. The company dumps roughly 1000 tons -- a third of Chennai's municipal waste -- everyday in Perungudi. Perungudi is a low-lying area adjacent to Pallikaranai.

The reed-covered swampy holding grounds of Pallikaranai store the rain water and feed it through the year to several lakes located in the south of Chennai. The shallow depression was carved over geologic time by fast-moving water rushing seaward from the hills along the coast. The swamps are also a wayside stop for migratory birds and an important nesting area for more than 26 varieties of birds.

According to N.G. Anuthaman, a groundwater geologist from Chennai-based Anna Universitys Centre for Water Resources, "The integrity of the Pallikaranai wetlands is crucial for the water security of south Chennai."

Effects of Dumping

Municipal waste dumping can have a deadly effect on water bodies. The rich organic content in municipal wastes degrades over time to release highly acidic and toxic leachates (the concentrated poisons from garbage). In industrialized countries, municipal waste landfills have special liners to protect these leachates from reaching the groundwater. However, it is generally acknowledged even by regulatory agencies such as the US EPA that even the best engineered landfills eventually leak. (1) Scientific studies indicate that landfills can be a significant source of groundwater contamination. Once contaminated, groundwater is virtually impossible to clean.

Onyx is the garbage management arm of the French multinational Vivendi Environment which has interests in water, transportation, communications and energy.

Where Onyx dumps its garbage, there is no landfill, no liners, just low-lying land. A visit by the author to the dumpyard revealed haphazard disposal of solid wastes in and around the wetland. Pools and rivulets of black, foul-smelling leachates were found amidst burning piles of garbage.

Such conditions are conducive for the release of some of the most toxic environmental contaminants, including dioxins, furans and heavy metals (lead, mercury, cadmium). [See related story: Know Your Landfill]

Return to Sender

Ironically, some of the areas such as Besant Nagar which are currently cleaned by Onyx may be among those directly affected by groundwater pollution due to dumping of wastes in Pallikaranai. "Pallikaranai lends to surface water recharge [through percolation and lateral movement] in Besant Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur and the newly developing areas along the coast," says geologist Anuthaman.

Earlier this year, the Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board served a notice to Onyx for "dumping indiscriminately on wetlands." According to Pollution Control Board chairperson Sheela Rani Chunkath, "They [Onyx] haven't demarcated the areas allotted for dumping. As a result, dumping happens everywhere, including in the wetland. As a multinational company, they should know better than to dump wastes in such sensitive areas."

Onyx's Swaminathan, however, says that the decision to dump in Perungudi/Pallikaranai was the Municipal Corporation's. "We cannot change that. We're merely going by the contract with the Municipal Corporation. Whatever the client wants, we can do," she says.

The attack on Pallikaranai's water is not solely by Onyx. In fact, Onyx is merely continuing the decade-long tradition of dumping on wetlands. Earlier, the Municipal Corporation of Chennai dumped the wastes here. Additionally, Metrowater, which also manages the city's sewage, discharges "treated" sewage water directly into the wetlands.

It is little wonder then that Chennai is now considering handing over the city's water supply and distribution to private companies. No matter what happens, residents lose, and private water companies certainly stand to gain when freshwater resources are spoilt.


1. 'New Evidence that All Landfills Leak,' Rachels Environment & Health Weekly #316. December 16, 1992.

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