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Acute water shortage hits Chennai in India

Water pots lined up for filling in Chennai, India. Image from Flickr by McKay Savage. CC-By-2.0

In northern India, millions of people are facing the wrath of monsoon floods. But in southern India, it's a different story. Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, had recorded abysmal rainfalls last year as the Southwest monsoon ended early. An ensuing dry spell of 200 days, when the skies refused to open, pushed the city from the frying pan into the fire.

As per the South Asia Drought Monitor, the drought situation in the southern parts of the country is far worse than people realize. More than 44 percent of India is facing drought-like conditions, of which over 17 percent is facing ‘severe dry’ conditions.

Home to about 9 million residents, Chennai is among the six fastest-growing cities in the world. Its denizens are no stranger to natural calamities. The city has seen recurring droughts and floods but the recent lack of rainfall was a new low point.

Over the summer, freshwater became a rare commodity in the city. The taps ran dry and the municipal corporation was unable to provide water at all.

12 July saw the first train from Vellore arrive at the city with 2.5 million liters of water. Even though more water is scheduled to arrive from the neighboring cities, it is unlikely to fulfill the current deficit.

Long before the government decided to import water to alleviate the dire straits in the city, the people of Chennai had already turned to water tankers to quench their thirst. This summer saw women waiting in long queues on the streets with plastic pots, waiting for their turn to get water.

Even the workforce has been affected. Several IT companies have already asked their employees to work from home because they were unable to provide water at their offices. Needless to say, the daily lives of people have been turned upside-down.

Rajani Vaidyanathan, an internationally acclaimed journalist tweeted:

When the rains finally arrived on 15 and 16 July, even though intense, they were like a drop of water on the parched earth. The city depends on four main reservoirs to meet its water requirements. These are Poondi, Cholavaram, Puzhal, and Malayambakkam. However, these reservoirs do not even hold one percent of the water of their total capacity.

The water crisis in Chennai did not come about in a day. A 2016 report by CareEarth Trust, an NGO working to preserve biodiversity, pointed out that the wetlands of Chennai are now just a pale shadow of what they used to be. Within just four decades, the overall share of wetlands in the city’s geography went from a whopping 80 percent to a paltry 15 percent.

The rapid expansion of Chennai into a burgeoning urban settlement without diligent planning has done little for the water bodies. It has resulted in depleted forest covers, drying up of water bodies and more demands on the remaining fresh-water resources.

As the harsh realities of the water crisis hit home harder than ever, people share their frustrations on the lack of planning that has led to this critical point. Sanjoy K Roy from New Delhi tweeted:

Environmentalist and entrepreneur Sandip Burman tweeted:

The unprecedented water crisis of Chennai has also set alarm bells ringing across other big cities. People fear that their city might be the next to suffer from water scarcity. Journalist Anusha Puppala tweeted:

Tarun Kumar from Bangalore tweeted:

Their concerns are not out of proportion. Last year, Niti Ayog, a think-tank of the Government of India had tabled an alarming report. As per the report, 21 cities in India, including Chennai, might run out of groundwater by 2020. Almost 100 million people all over the country are going to be affected. Considering that 2020 is just around the corner, the future may look pretty grim.

Paul Pradeep Chris from Chennai tweeted:

Hopefully, the current alarm would finally help put the water crises into perspective. It certainly has made the looming water security issues become as real as it gets.

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