India has been staring down the barrel of a water crisis for some time now. In Chennai, it has materialised.
All four major reservoirs of the Tamil Nadu state capital have effectively run dry, their reserves dropping to a seventy-year low. This is severely affecting the capacity of the Chennai Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) to satiate the water needs of a population in excess of nine million people. The CMWSSB is able to supply 525 million litres of water daily, compared to a demand of 800 million litres. This represents a forty percent decrease in its water provision capacity.
According to Livemint, the Cholavaram and Redhills (or Puzhal aeri) reservoirs have both run dry. The reservoirs have capacities of 1,081 and 3,300 million cubic feet (mcft) respectively. The Poondi reservoir has a capacity of 3,231 mcft but a water level of just 24 mcft. At the Chembarambakkam lake, with a capacity of 3,645 mcft, the capacity is just one mcft.
This has forced many residents to turn to private water suppliers and pay up to Rs 5,000 crore (the CMWSSB charges between Rs 300 and Rs 400 for a supply of 9,000 litres). Whether reliant on the public or private sector to meet their water needs, residents have to wait. Using the CMWSSB tankers incur waiting periods of 25 days. The private tankers can take up to two weeks to arrive from the order being placed.
“[Chief Minister] Palaniswami says that the northeast monsoon will bring respite, despite the fact that those rains will not arrive until September or October. Until then, groundwater reserves will be depended upon to meet the needs of both Chennai and the state as a whole.”
The effects on everyday life are manifold. The city is in the grip of a heatwave with temperatures of over 40℃. Water shortages mean Chennaites have little option for respite. Some schools are shutting their doors or cutting their opening hours because they cannot dispense water to their students in the searing heat or operate sanitation facilities (although government officials deny there is a problem in the city’s publicly-run schools). Restaurants and hotels have shuttered their doors whilst hospitals are enacting water conservation measures to stay operational. Even businesses are asking employees to stay home.
Yet according to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, the crisis is being blown out of proportion. “The media should not create an illusion of water scarcity using some stray incidents,” he said. “Drinking water is being supplied through tankers. People are using this water to even wash clothes.”
Palaniswami says that the northeast monsoon will bring respite, despite the fact that those rains will not arrive until September or October. Until then, groundwater reserves will be depended upon to meet the needs of both Chennai and the state as a whole. Other measures being taken include releasing water from the Mettur Dam to fill Chennai’s neighbouring Veenam Lake; desalination projects to increase water supplies; and digging of borewells.
“Many Chennaites are foregoing washing their clothes or even bathing because of water shortages.”
The Chief Minister himself acknowledges that the groundwater reserves are depleted – though this seems to be an understatement. Rain Centre, in a study of 88 observation wells, has reported that 52 of them are dry. Borewells, to tap into a water supply, sometimes have to be dug as deep as 1,000 feet. This is far from a recent phenomenon. In March, it was reported that the city’s water table had declined to an average of eight feet. 22 districts of the city have seen their groundwater levels drop so precipitously that they are now on red alert.
NDTV, however, reports that many Chennaites are foregoing washing their clothes and even bathing because of water shortages. The Guardian has reported that “entire families are managing their drinking and cooking needs with two or three pots of water.” Meanwhile, the Chief Minister’s comments seem to overlook the reality of high prices and elongated waiting times for the tankers to arrive, contributing to the misery being experienced by many of the city’s residents
Few are letting the state government off the hook. The Madras High Court has accused the state government of mismanaging water resources and facilitating the present crisis as a result. While the state government insists that inadequate monsoon rainfall last year is what fed the crisis, the High Court criticised the absence of a number of measures such as desilting, preventing excess runoff of rainwater into the sea, and delayed efforts to raise awareness of water conservation measures among citizens.
““The destruction has just begun. If the rain fails us this year too, we are totally destroyed.””
The drought plaguing Chennai is posed to become a matter of course in India in the coming years. Already entire villages across the country are being evacuated as their residents go looking for water. Meanwhile, states including Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Odisha, Rajasthan and Telangana declared instances of drought in April at a time when a national drought had yet to be declared by the Centre (at the time of writing, a declaration of drought is still not forthcoming but the Centre presciently warned of a rainfall deficit during the southwest monsoon season).
This year, 42 percent of India’s land – covering 500 million people – was anticipated by one monitoring platform to be vulnerable to drought. By June, this situation had escalated: the Drought Early Warning System announced at the beginning of the month that 56.4 percent of land in India was drought-hit. Water levels in at least 71 of India’s 91 India major reservoirs had declined, by up to 68 percent in Maharashtra.
The water crisis acts as a baptism of fire for the newly convened Jal Shakti Ministry, which assumes the responsibility of managing the country’s water resources. As Indians nationwide grow desperate in the face of drought, the Centre and state governments must grapple with reality and handle the crisis as southwest monsoon rains in the first half of June experience a 43 percent deficiency. For Tamil Nadu, the rains experienced during the southwest monsoon are so far deficient by twenty percent.
The importance of the monsoon rains cannot be understated – for Chennai and for India. As one official in the city said, “the destruction has just begun. If the rain fails us this year too, we are totally destroyed.”