Climate change blamed as Chennai runs dry

In 2015 Chennai had too much rain: Now there’s not enough. Image: By Indian Navy, via Wikimedia Commons

The monsoon’s failure and government mismanagement in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu are being blamed as Chennai runs dry.

CHENNAI, 1 July, 2019 − Some of the poorest people of India’s sixth largest city are having to spend half their weekly income on water as Chennai runs dry: its four reservoirs lie empty and the government’s relief tankers cannot keep up with demand from citizens.

Despite government claims that there is no water crisis, the taps are empty and many of Chennai’s nine million people are queuing from early morning, awaiting what water the tankers can deliver.

Monsoon rains have failed for the last two years, leaving the city enduring a heat wave with no water. The government is delivering 10 million litres daily by train from 200 kilometres away in a bid to provide enough water for the poor to survive. In the richer areas private water tankers are maintaining supplies, charging double the normal rate to fill a roof tank.

Businesses, particularly restaurants, have been forced to close, and children are not attending school because they are spending all day queuing for water for their families.

Although it is clear that climate change is affecting the monsoon’s pattern and it may be October before Chennai gets enough water to restore supplies to normal, government mismanagement is also being blamed.

Contrasting views

The city’s plight has been highlighted by Leonardo DiCaprio, the American actor and environmentalist, who is a UN climate change ambassador.

His message is in stark contrast to that from Tamil Nadu chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami. He told the media he uses only two pots of water every day, and that his government is taking good care of its citizens. This was after local media reported that his house in Chennai was receiving two truckloads of water a day.

A senior official in the Chennai metro water board said that efforts had been made since early June to ensure residents’ minimum water needs were met: “The government has initiated plans to bring water from nearby districts. Since the monsoon rains failed consecutively for the third year, we couldn’t store any water.”

He said sources in use now included water from stone quarries, two desalination plants in the city, a local lake and some borewells in the suburbs.

The government is trying to suppress demonstrations. When a voluntary organisation, Arappor Iyakkam, sought permission from the Chennai police commissioner for a protest about the water crisis, he refused, citing what he said was the need to protect law and order and the effect on peace and tranquillity at a time when the government was already striving to provide water. So the protestors approached the Madras high court for permission to go ahead.

“The government does not stop supplying water for multi-national companies when its own people are struggling to quench their thirst’’

According to Arappor Iyakkam’s co-ordinator, Jayaraman, the court said public awareness about the crisis was important, and granted permission. Iyakkam said: “Chennai and many parts of Tamil Nadu are facing an acute water crisis, and this has arisen due to continuous neglect of water bodies, and maladministration and corruption by the ruling governments.

“The present government has been in a denial mode, acknowledging the level of water shortage and its failure to work on solutions. Our campaign would emphasise the need for action on a war footing.”

Social activist Arul Doss argues that the government is losing its focus on seeking long-term solutions and is instead spending money on desalination plants. “The rich can afford to buy water for double the price. But the poor workers are now forced to spend half of their salary for water. What kind of development are we heading to?

“The government does not stop supplying water for multi-national companies when its own people are struggling to quench their thirst,’’ he said.

“Instead of spending money on recycling water and de-silting all the water bodies before the monsoon season, the government is working hard on opening new desalination plants in Chennai. It is hard to believe this is the same city that suffered flash floods in 2015.

Getting worse

“At least by now the government should have cleaned up water bodies and ensured grey water usage in high-rise apartments in the city,’’ Arul Doss told Climate News Network.

The plight of ordinary people is growing more extreme. A Chennai resident, K Meena, a student, has to fetch water. “We have to depend on the tanker supply, because the taps in our streets have dried up. Ours is a family of five. My parents and siblings take turns to collect water for bathing and cooking. I skipped classes and went late to college because I had to wait for the lorry,” said Meena.

Cab driver A Logeswaran uses the toilet facilities at petrol stations and sleeps in his car every other night to avoid using precious water supplies at home, which are kept for his wife and three-year-old child.

“Some of my neighbours sent their children and wives back to their native villages due to the water crisis. This is a very sad state for our city. Water is a basic need and I feel the government has failed completely,’’ he said in despair. − Climate News Network