Millions suffer as Chennai faces worst ever water crisis

chennai water crisis

Millions of people are running out of usable water in Chennai, India’s sixth biggest city. The water crisis has turned into a political issue. The state opposition party has called a statewide protest on June 22.

Media reports said:

Chennai, capital city of the southern Indian state, is experiencing major droughts and a rapidly worsening water crisis as the city is almost entirely out of water.

Clashes over water

People have begun fighting over water, with minor clashes across Chennai. Trucks bringing water into cities have even been hijacked and drivers of the trucks have been attacked, said Jyoti Sharma, founder and president of FORCE, an Indian NGO working on water conservation.

People were fighting in queues for water, many unable to take showers and hotels were warning people about water usage.

With borewells and wells going dry in parts of Tamil Nadu, the demand for water has gone up manifold prompting people to depend on private water tanker operators.

While there is a little water still available, it’s not sure how long it will last.

Water tankers, the sole source

Most of Chennai’s more than four million population is now relying solely on government tankers to provide water to the city.

Others are paying large sums of money for private companies to provide water to their homes. Even then, it can take up to four days for the tanker to arrive.

City resident Rajasimhan told the BBC: “We are facing one of the worst water shortages in recent years. The water situation has been very bad for the last month. And it will be worse if there is no rain in the coming days. There is no water through the taps.

“We have to depend heavily on water supplied by trucks from Chennai Metro Water or private water suppliers. The latter being too costly but we don’t have a choice.

“We store water in buckets and pots. If the water tankers won’t turn up, we source water from the common storage tanks kept on the street. It is very time consuming. All the major reservoirs in the city are dry. We are all praying for a good rain to tide over the water crisis.

With low groundwater levels and insufficient rainwater collection systems, the state government has resorted to trucking water directly into Chennai neighborhoods, where hundreds of thousands of residents wait in line for their meager allocation.

“I come here every night and early morning hours to collect (water) with my neighbor and my son,” said N Bhagyalakshmi, a Chennai resident. With her sons, she lugs about 20 pots of water home every morning.

Punitha, a mother of two, told NDTV that she waits for hours every two days to get water from a government tanker.

She said she gets just seven pots of water on alternate days for her four-member family.

Children are not able to go to school and college. Many city dwellers were seen collecting water from the Valluvar square tank at 1am or 2am.”

Fights have broken out at some public water tanks as people queue to collect water.

In some cases, people have attempted to draw water from wells – but the quality of the ground water is poor.

Restaurants and hotels

Smaller restaurants have been forced to close, while some people have been told to work from home in a bid to conserve water in their workplaces.

Hotels have even started rationing water for its guests.

P Chandrasekhar, a supervisor at Ananda, a small hotel in the city warned its guests to be mindful of every drop.

Chandrasekhar said: “It’s not just us, all the hotels run the risk of shutting down because there’s hardly enough water.”

“There are a lot of restaurants that are shutting down. The malls are not functioning, public toilets and all of those things are getting affected because of the water crisis. We hope to have some rainfall super soon and get our water back.”

The city’s metro has also stopped using air conditioning at its railway stations.

Water for the rich

A few residents of the city said: No amount of money can buy water because there are people who are willing to spend thousands of rupees just to get a few liters of water; however, they are not able to get even that.

Near-dry reservoirs

Four major lakes – Chembarambakkam, Poondi, Red Hills and Cholavaram – that supply water to the city are almost dry.

Only the deepest parts of the Lake Chembarambakkam still hold water.

Lake Puzhal, the city’s largest, was a large body of water. On June 15, 2018, it was full of blue water. One year later, the reservoir has been reduced to an almost completely dry lakebed.

Porur Lake, which is considered one of the main sources of water, reached its lowest level.

The Cholavaram (full capacity 1,081 mcft) and Red Hills (3,300 mcft), which cater to Chennai’s water needs are dry while the storage at Poondi reservoir is 24 mcft as against the full capacity of 3,231 mcft, according to the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (Chennai Metro). The Chembarambakkam Lake (full capacity 3,645 mcft) has a water level of a mere 1 mcft.

550 arrested

Around 550 protesters were arrested on Wednesday for trying to stage a protest demanding Municipal Administration Minister S P Velumani’s resignation for his alleged failure to resolve the water crisis in Tamil Nadu.

The protesters held bright plastic pots over their heads to make a vivid display of the protest against the water crisis.

Police said the protesters were arrested since there was no permission to stage the demonstration.

Short respite

There was some respite for Chennai residents Thursday, when the city received its first major rainfall of the year.

It was the first major rainfall since December, according to the Tamil Nadu Meteorological Department.

According to the Met Department, the forecast of rain within days is of light to moderate rain and the reservoirs are almost dry. So, this won’t help in replenishment but will just give respite from the heat. The proper rain to fill up the reservoirs isn’t expected until November.

Chennai recorded 29 millimeters of rainfall Thursday (1.14 inches) – the most the city has documented in the last six months combined.

The situation in Chennai reflects an ongoing nationwide crisis as a fatal heat wave sweeps across the country, and cities from Mumbai to Delhi face dwindling water supplies.

Protests called

In response to the ongoing crisis, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the main opposition party in the state, has called for statewide protests on June 22.

“The government is not even acknowledging that there is a water crisis,” said DMK’s Saravanan Annadurai. “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.”

Annadurai added that that “restaurants have been closed, students are in schools where there is no water, people working in IT companies have been asked to stay at home.”

Madras HC slams state government

The Madras High Court has come down strongly on the state government for not taking adequate measures to address the severe water crisis in the state.

The court had earlier sought a reply from the Tamil Nadu government on measures taken to address the water crisis.

The HC observed that the government did not take adequate steps even if the water crisis in the wake of failed monsoons was expected.

The high court was hearing a petition on the exploitation of groundwater for commercial purposes.

While the Tamil Nadu government said it took steps to handle the crisis (like allotting Rupees, Indian currency, 212 crore for digging deep borewells), the court directed the Public Works Department (PWD) secretary to submit a state-wide comprehensive report on the number of reservoirs in the state, steps taken for desilting, amount sanctioned, and status of those works.

The chief minister finds no inaction

However, the state chief minister K Palaniswami said the issue is being blow out of proportion.

Palaniswami has said the issue is not as big as being made out. He urged the media not to create an “illusion” of scarcity.

“People should also understand the situation and cooperate. The media should not create an illusion of water scarcity using some stray incidents,” said Palaniswami said on Tuesday.

The Krishna river water from Kandaleru dam in neighboring Andhra Pradesh was also not being realized in its full capacity, the chief minister said, responding to reporters’ queries on the water situation.

Municipal Administration and Rural Development Minister S P Velumani said water supply has been stepped up from the earlier 450 MLD (million liters per day) to current 525 MLD and it will be continued till the onset of monsoon.

Negligence and administrative failure, says DMK

The DMK, which is the principal opposition in Tamil Nadu, blamed the AIADMK government for its “negligence,” and “administrative failure” that led to the water crisis in the state.

The DMK said it would hold protests on June 22 across Tamil Nadu to urge the state government to take steps on a war footing to address the severe water shortage in the state.


Droughts across India are an annually recurring event, and smaller towns have run out of water before. But Chennai is one of the first major cities to face such severe water shortages, exacerbated by a combination of climate change, a nationwide heatwave, and poor planning.

Seasonal monsoon rains, which bring relief each year and replenish the country’s water supplies, are late this year. They usually begin at the exact same time at the start of June, and make their way across the country – but this year, the monsoon is more than two weeks late in some places.

In Chennai in particular, monsoon rains should have begun by June 1, but have yet to arrive, according to the India Met Department. Rainfall over the country is only running about half of what it should be at this point of June.

Erratic rainfall has brought into sharp focus the insufficiency of alternative water harvesting systems, and residents across Tamil Nadu accuse the state government of water mismanagement.

When rare downpours do suddenly come, existing infrastructure often fails to store water adequately.

“The soil gets saturated very fast, you don’t have water harvesting systems in place, the rivers are full, there’s no space for the water to stay – it all goes out to the sea and away from the city,” said Jyoti Sharma of FORCE.

This depletion and dependence is particularly concerning in large cities, where at least 60% of the population live in unauthorized settlements instead of government-designated residential areas, Sharma said.

Around 820,000 people live in slums in Chennai, according to a 2017 report from the Tamil Nadu government.

These low-income families, without access to expensive private water tankers or rainwater harvesting systems, are almost entirely dependent on groundwater for basic needs – and thus are hit hardest in crises like this.

“The metro water from the pipeline is mixed with sewage, and it is not possible to use it,” said N Anand, a Chennai resident who has been collecting water from the government tankers every morning for the past month.

The groundwater-reliance

India heavily relies on groundwater for its water needs, but decades of drilling into the earth to reach water has led to severe ground water depletion.

The recent report of NITI Ayog on groundwater level said 21 Indian cities including Chennai would run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting around 100 million people.

It also said that 40 per cent of India’s population would have no access to drinking water by 2030.

The Chennai-scenario

Three rivers, four water bodies, five wetlands and six forests have completely dried in Chennai despite having better water resources and rains than any other metro cities, the report said.

Deficit rainfall during the 2017 northeast monsoon and failed monsoon in 2018 has resulted in depletion of ground water levels and near drying up of major waterbodies, and has pushed residents at the mercy of private water-tanker operators.

Water is scarce in most Indian cities at the best of times and residents don’t expect their taps to run round the clock, so they store it.

But this year the monsoon season has been delayed, adding to the city’s water problems.


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