Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state, has become the first major Indian city to face an acute water shortage. Every morning, its four million residents line up daily to fill cans and pots of water from state water trucks across the city. Some residents get their rationed quota of water daily, while others get it once a week.
Families have started to fill small tanks in their homes and use water sparingly. People are having to wash utensils in the same dirty water, saving a few bottles of clean water to cook food. But it is the city’s essential services that have been the hardest hit: hospitals, businesses and schools have struggled to stay afloat.
Doctors and staff at the small 24-bed, orthopaedic Tosh hospital, said they are “just about managing” with a municipal tanker coming twice a week.
“We have really rationed water use and have enough, for the moment, for the ward toilets and the toilets in OPD [the out-patient department] but it’s becoming alarming,” said Dr Prabhu Manickam, an orthopaedic surgeon at the hospital, to The Guardian.
What is causing the water shortage?
The crisis in India’s sixth largest city comes as the country struggles to deal with a heatwave that has caused hundreds of deaths, with 184 people killed just in the eastern state of Bihar. Temperatures reached 48C near the airport in Delhi last week and above 50C in Rajasthan.
The reasons for the water shortage are complex but experts cite as one reason unplanned urban development that has destroyed the wetlands around the city. Even as the government scrambles to provide a steady water supply to the city, the four reservoirs which supply Chennai’s water have almost run dry after nearly 200 days without rain. And the groundwater levels have dropped drastically over the years.
“Because the level of water in the reservoirs has gone down, and due to less rainfall … a drinking water problem has arisen in Chennai,” Edappadi Palaniswami, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu told CNN.
As a result, most of Chennai’s more than four million population is now relying solely on government tankers to provide their water. Others are paying large sums of money for private companies to supply water to their homes. Even then, it can take up to four days for the tanker to arrive.
The price of each tanker has quadrupled in the last month because water is so scarce. A number of smaller restaurants have even been forced to close, while some people have been told to work from home in a bid to conserve water in their workplaces. The city’s metro system has also stopped using air conditioning at its stations.
What are the long term effects?
The shortage in India’s sixth largest city is symbolic of a crisis that is being felt across the country as India is inching closer to a debilitating water crisis. With poor water management and unsupervised groundwater extraction, experts said that 600 million of India’s 1.3 billion people are facing acute water shortage.
“The scarcity we are facing today is man-made. Several ponds and lakes are filled with garbage. Lakes and reservoirs have not been deserted for years. There is no right of way for water,” Dr Sekhar Raghavan, a physicist and water expert, said to the BBC.
According to a report released by Niti Aayog – a government-run think tank – 21 major cities including New Delhi will run out of groundwater by 2020. This crisis is further driven by a poorly defined legal framework for groundwater that rests ownership with landowners and leads to unchecked extraction and is most acute in the Indian agriculture sector, where groundwater accounts for 63% of all irrigation water, the report stated.
What is the government response?
There has been little political will to address the problem comprehensively. Politicians rely on the monsoon and when it is late, as it is this year, and when the rainfall is inadequate, as it has been for several years, there are no policies in place to compensate for the shortfall. The inadequate rainfall in past monsoons has led to groundwater levels plummeting.
The opposition party – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) – in Tamil Nadu, the state where Chennai is the capital, launched a statewide protest on 22 June.
“The government is not even acknowledging that there is a water crisis,” said DMK’s Saravanan Annadurai to CNN. “Only if they acknowledge that there is a crisis, we can find a solution.”
Annadurai accused the state government, which is led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party (AIADMK) and is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling coalition, of “dismissing the reports as exaggeration by the media and the opposition.”
The state government has dismissed reports that water is not reaching everyone in the city. “In case of a water issue somewhere, it should not be blown up to give a false impression that the entire state is reeling from water scarcity,” Edappadi Palaniswami, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, was quoted as saying in local newspapers.