The southern city of Chennai—India’s 5th largest with a pop ulation of around 10 million—has been meeting only 2/3 of its water needs for weeks, the product of years of drought & decades of failure to m anage the region’s water resources.
Residents have been scrambling around the clock to get water—spendi ng hours chasing government tankers or paying private companies to deliver water.
Recent light rains broke a 200-day streak without rain. But the first month of India’s annual monsoon brought one-third less rain than the 50- year average, the driest June in five years, according to the India Meteoro logical Department.
The acute water shortage in one of India’s largest cities has been building for decades through a mix of population growth, poor planning and increasingly erratic monsoon rains.
“The current water crisis in Chennai was predicted years ago, and t here has been relatively little effort made to prepare for it,” say s Mervyn Piesse, manager of global food and water crises research program a t Future Directions International, a research institute based in Nedlands, Australia.
The situation in Chennai reflects a larger water crisis spreading across In dia. Half the country’s population—600 million people? ?live in areas where water resources are highly or extremely stressed. Ab out 100 million people living in 21 of India’s biggest cities may s ee their groundwater exhausted by the end of next year, according to a 2018 study by NITI Aayog, an Indian government policy think tank.
By 2030, demand for water will be double the country’s supply, the report said. And the impact will go far beyond the areas actually affected by water shortages: Almost one-third of the country’s agricultural output comes from areas most affected by water shortages.
“Water scarcity affects many parts of the country every year,? ? Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a radio address to the country Sun day. “Now the time has come to find a solution to this problem.? ??
The situation in Chennai underscores the challenges.
S. Lalitha, a 36-year-old resident who earns 12,000 rupees ($174) each mont h working as a housemaid, said she spent the whole night several times rece ntly waiting and searching for government water trucks, the only free water available to her for her family.
“Running after water took up all my time. They come around 3 or 4 i n the morning. We have to run after them to fill our buckets before the sup plies dry up. Sometimes, it can take two to three days for the trucks to tu rn up,” she said.
The scarcity has led to clashes between neighbors. “No one is ready to share even a glass of water,” she said.
After having to skip work for lack of sleep, she finally decided to pay a p rivate company 9,000 rupees a month for deliveries during the day. ========“I’m spending almost my entire salary just to get water. Is this fair?” she said.
S. Raveendhran, a 27-year-old software engineer at a technology company in Chennai, said he has been asked by his hostel owner to vacate the room he r ents at the end of next month. The hostel is being closed because it doesn ’t have enough water to meet the daily needs of the people staying there, he said.
“I try to reach office early to take a shower there and wash my clo thes on alternate days,” he said.
But Mr. Raveendhran said his company has now asked him to work from home to conserve the company’s water. “I’ve already starte d looking for a job in a new city,” he said.
Mohammad Alam, a worker at Hotel Sangeetha, said they were serving food on banana leaves instead of steel plates. “We have to ration water. It ’s better than shutting down,” the 21-year-old said.
The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, also known as Che nnai Metro Water—the local body that provides drinking water? ?supplies 525 million liters a day, out of the city’s total requi rement of 830 million liters a day, said T.N. Hariharan, the board’ s managing director.
Chennai gets most of its water from four reservoirs, two of which are compl etely dry while the remaining two are almost dry.
Water experts say major Indian cities such as the capital New Delhi, the te ch hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad, and smaller cities like Shimla and Mang alore are also facing unprecedented water-scarcity challenges. They join ma jor urban centers such as São Paulo, Brazil, and Cape Town, South Afri ca, that have experienced acute water shortages in recent years.
“If the cities do not take action urgently, it’s just a mat ter of time for such water-scarce cities to be in a Chennai or Cape Town-li ke ‘Day Zero’ situation,” said Samrat Basak, direct or for urban water issues at the India office of the World Resources Instit ute, an environmental-research organization in Washington.
Day Zero refers to when a city’s water utilities stop their regular supply to household taps and use water tankers to distribute daily rations .
India’s federal government recently created a new Ministry of Water , merging two water-related ministries. “This will allow faster dec ision-making on all subjects related to water,” Prime Minister Modi said in his radio address.
Mr. Modi said he has also written a letter to elected village heads across the country urging them to take steps to conserve water. “Just like the cleanliness drive has been given the shape of a mass movement by the c ountrymen, let’s also start a mass movement for water conservation, ” Mr. Modi said.
“India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history, and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat,” the NITI Aayo g-commissioned report said. “The crisis is only going to get worse. ”