A city in India almost ran dry. What will prevent a repeat?

Sarita Santoshini
Residents of Triplicane, one of Chennai's oldest neighbourhoods, line up to collect water for the day's consumption at 7 a.m.
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Fall monsoon rains are even more welcome than usual in Chennai, India, this year. The coastal city of 10 million grabbed headlines this summer for nearing “Day Zero” – that is, for nearly running out of water.

As taps ran dry, hundreds of tankers and trains supplied water, but residents complained about irregular schedules that left some having to skip work or school. For those who could afford it, there were thousands of private tankers, too.

Why We Wrote This

The threat of taps running dry grabs attention. But what happens when water starts to trickle back through? As Chennai breathes a sigh of relief, many highlight the long-term need for more sustainable policies.

Reservoirs are filling up again, but many worry scarcity will return. Climate change has worsened droughts and water issues across India. But poor management and rapid development have exacerbated the situation, analysts say. Six hundred million Indians face high to extreme water stress – and officials must take that reality into account as their cities expand, resource experts say.

In the meantime, neighbors help each other – like Suryakumar. Every morning, he wakes up at five, walks to the pumping station a mile and a half away, and accompanies the water tanker back to the narrow street where he lives, helping residents fill their pots.

“I have had to take this responsibility because the metro or the driver don’t care if there’s no water in my neighborhood tomorrow. But I do,” he says.

On a sultry September afternoon Eswari meanders restlessly around her neighborhood. Dressed in a floral printed nightgown and her hair tied in a messy bun, she halts occasionally to exchange a few words with passersby. At one moment, she joins a group of women who look at the gray clouds gathering overhead and release a collective sigh. There is only one topic of discussion here: water.

Eswari works as a security guard at an IT firm, but today she took leave. She wanted to ensure she would be available to fill the two large water drums that her family uses for everything except drinking and cooking, on the odd chance water came through the pumps outside their building. It did not. 

“We are not informed which day or time water will be supplied next,” says Eswari, who uses only one name. For the past two months, she says, the average gap has been about six days. “I think it will be supplied tomorrow. I’ll ask my daughter to skip school and fill the drums.” 

Why We Wrote This

The threat of taps running dry grabs attention. But what happens when water starts to trickle back through? As Chennai breathes a sigh of relief, many highlight the long-term need for more sustainable policies.

In June, this southern Indian city of 10 million grabbed international headlines for nearing “Day Zero”: almost running out of water, in other words. Of Chennai’s four main reservoirs, three had gone completely dry – and the last, Poondi, had 26 million cubic feet of water, against its full capacity of 3,231 million cubic feet. 

Now, as late-fall rains finally arrive, many are breathing a sigh of relief. But long term, the water situation here and in many other Indian cities is exacerbated by poor management and rapid development, observers say, leaving many poorer residents feeling like they must fend for themselves.

“Managing the demand for water for a growing population in the country is a major challenge,” says Kangkanika Neog, an analyst at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, a Delhi-based think tank. “There are existing gaps like poor water quality due to lack of proper monitoring and low treatment capacity, inefficiency in the supply of water, and groundwater depletion. ... Climate change is only making things worse.”

“It’s time for institutions to come together and look at water as an integrated component during urban planning,” Ms. Neog adds. “The infrastructure of old cities was based on the scenario of water plenty but that’s no longer the case.”

Six hundred million people across the country face high to extreme water stress. According to a recent report by World Resources Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, India is the 13th most water-stressed country in the world – but has triple the population of the other 17 worst-affected countries combined. Another report, released by India’s Central Water Commission, observes that scarcity is a result not so much of water deficit as of “severe neglect” and lack of monitoring.

Waiting for water

Over the summer, as taps ran dry, about 900 city tankers supplied water to Chennai, but at an irregular schedule. Tankers source most of their water from agricultural wells and farms in the outskirts of the city, however, draining farmers and rural residents to meet urban needs and further depleting groundwater in the process. Chennai is overdrawing its groundwater by 185%. 

For those who can afford it, there are about 5,000 private tankers, and for a while, even special trains were arranged to carry water. At the crisis’s peak, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state, of which Chennai is the capital, argued that the media was blowing the issue out of proportion, and requested that residents “understand the situation and cooperate” until expected fall rains. 

For a large percentage of the city, however, regular access existed only on paper. In Kannagi Nagar, where Eswari lives – a neighborhood built to resettle slum residents – the tankers were both inaccessible and unaffordable, and scarcity began almost a year ago. 

In a report submitted to the state high court, the government reasoned that the lakes began drying up after a failed monsoon in 2017, following which the city’s water supply had been reduced by more than a third. But the court criticized the state’s lack of management and passivity, asking questions about attempts to source other water as the lakes ran dry, to preserve excess rainwater, or to reclaim bodies of water from encroachment.

Chennai, the commercial hub of south India, has been expanding for decades. By 1975, it had already quadrupled in size, and there are plans to expand it sevenfold, making it the country’s second-largest metro area. A large part of the development has been at the cost of – and literally over – water bodies, whose number and size have shrunk rapidly.

The flat, coastal city lies in the rain shadow of the Eastern Ghats mountain range, and needs to be designed with that geography in mind, as well as the erratic nature of the northeast monsoon it relies on, emphasizes Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based environmental activist and journalist. The same reservoirs that had overflowed in 2015 and caused devastating floods in the city were now dry.

“The solution to both is preserving water bodies, and to build the infrastructure to help the water seep in, soak, stay, and flow,” he says. “If you can’t prescribe these four behaviors of water, you will get into trouble.” Open spaces, which are also important for groundwater recharge, he adds, have been replaced with construction.

Neighbors step up

This month, monsoon rains have begun to arrive, restoring groundwater supplies. The last water train arrived last week, and the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh has begun releasing water through canals toward Chennai. But some residents fear scarcity will return unless long-term solutions are adopted. “There is a big worry. We have reduced water usage and started saving rainwater,” says resident Lamuel Enoch, who says he has not had tap water for four months.

For Sunil Jayaram and his neighbors in Chitlapakkam neighborhood, the 2015 flood was a wake-up call to Chennai’s water management problems. The following year, their bore wells ran dry, with no groundwater even 400 feet down. The nearby lake “was allowed to be encroached to a large extent and the rest of it was filled with garbage,” Mr. Jayaram says. 

Residents came together to form Chitlapakkam Rising, a group with about 2,500 volunteers, who began a drive to restore the lake. They began to clean the lake themselves, and after three years, successfully campaigned for a government desilting project.

Mr. Jayaram notes that the progress has been minimal, but that the scarcity led to greater awareness and initiative. “Rainwater harvesting is definitely picking up. I see a lot of individual houses redoing it themselves,” he says. Resident welfare associations have constructed dozens of pits along road corners to collect water, as well. 

Throughout Chennai, residents have taken responsibilities on their shoulders. There’s Suryakumar, a resident of Triplicane, one of Chennai’s oldest neighborhoods, who wakes up at five every morning, heads to the pumping station a mile and a half away, and accompanies a public water tanker back to the narrow street where his home is. He directs traffic and helps residents fill their pots with water before getting ready for his day of work at a courier service. “I have had to take this responsibility because the metro or the driver don’t care if there’s no water in my neighborhood tomorrow. But I do,” he says.

Many, like Eswari, feel as if they have been left to the margins.

“We just want the government to provide at least one other alternate source of water,” one of her neighbors, Ramu, says solemnly. “Even if the water is salty or contaminated, we can use it for something. We can manage. It will be better than the many days when we have nothing.”

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