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The Water Crisis In Chennai, India: Who's To Blame And How Do You Fix It?

A youth scouts for mud crabs and snakehead fish on the parched bed of Chembarambakkam Lake on the outskirts of Chennai, India.
Arun Sankar
AFP/Getty Images
A youth scouts for mud crabs and snakehead fish on the parched bed of Chembarambakkam Lake on the outskirts of Chennai, India.

One of Chennai's biggest reservoirs, Chembarambakkam Lake, is now a cracked, windswept mud flat. There are swarms of insects as big as hummingbirds, stray goats nibbling at dust-coated shrubs and what look like a few water buffalo — but no water. A massive pipe that's supposed to carry water into the city is empty.

There are similarly parched scenes at Chennai's three other main reservoirs. This city of nearly 10 million — India's sixth largest — has almost run out of water. Municipal taps work only a few hours a week. Trains are arriving every few days with emergency water supplies. Residents who can afford it buy truckloads of water from private tankers that carry it from bore wells — deep, narrow wells typically equipped with a pump — drilled farther and farther out into the countryside, way beyond the city limits.

But Chennai got 755 millimeters (about 30 inches) of rain last year. That's more than London typically gets. So how did this happen?

No flow zones

At his cramped office near Chennai's seafront, Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist, unfurls a map of Chennai's reservoirs and its car factories. The city is India's Detroit — an auto industry hub. He traces his finger around the circumference of a reservoir, and then farther out, to all the wetlands surrounding it.

"A reservoir is not just a pot. It has a catchment, and how you use or abuse the catchment also determines how healthy your reservoir is going to be," Jayaraman explains. The catchment is the surrounding area where rainfall can flow into the reservoir.

That's the problem at Chembarambakkam Lake, he says.

"Around it, we've had intense development. So just [uphill from the reservoir] sits a very large special economic zone for automotive components and automobiles," he says.

That special zone houses a Hyundai automotive plant at Irungattukottai, an area that used to be part of the lake's catchment area. The factory uses rain and groundwater — for cooling machinery, washing vehicles and mixing with paint — that would otherwise flow into the reservoir.

Urban sprawl

On the other side of Chembarambakkam Lake is what used to be a farming area. It's called Senneer Kuppam, which means "place with pure water" in the local Tamil language.

This is where, for generations, Vincent Prasad's family grew eggplants and sunflowers. They used to irrigate them with ample water from a shallow well, dug by hand. As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, Prasad says he had to dig just 10 feet down to reach water. Now his neighbors have had to drill 80 to 100 feet down to strike water, he says. But renting a drilling rig is too expensive for him.

His father ended up abandoning agriculture and working in a factory. Prasad, now 39, has done the same. And as Chennai expands beyond its city limits, a superhighway has just been built through their once-sleepy village.

Farmers are selling their land for development — or, during the current water crisis, becoming water merchants.

"All my neighbors are drilling deep bore wells. It's an investment!" Prasad says. "You make more money selling your water than using it to irrigate crops."

More and more bore wells

This summer, Prasad joined a neighborhood group, comprised mostly of tenants who are petitioning the Indian government to stop landowners from drilling bore wells and protect the community's access to water. Those who can afford it drill bore wells that drain the aquifer, a porous area underground where water naturally accumulates. Those who cannot afford to drill, or don't own land, have had the taps in their homes run dry.

"They are selling our water to private companies and hotels. So we don't have any water at all. I can't take a bath," says Virmala, 32, a lawyer who goes by one name. She skips showers so she can bathe her 2-month-old daughter.

She says the water shortage has turned neighbors against one another. As water becomes scarce, protests have erupted.

"We are all angry, but the government doesn't support us. It supports the rich people who buy this water," says Prasad. "Because it's our water from here that's keeping the city of Chennai alive."

Meanwhile, what was once lush farmland has now become a dusty jam of giant tanker trucks. Locals took NPR correspondents on a driving tour of 29 new bore wells in the village of Senneer Kuppam, with hundreds of water tankers lined up alongside them. It takes just 15 minutes for a tanker to fill up and get back on the highway.

The "place of pure water" is draining fast.

Private water tanker trucks fill up at a bore well on Chennai's outskirts. The area was once a lush farming village but has become part of Chennai's expanding urban periphery. Locals are drilling bore wells to sell their groundwater. It's more profitable than using the water to irrigate crops.
/ Lauren Frayer/NPR
Lauren Frayer/NPR
Private water tanker trucks fill up at a bore well on Chennai's outskirts. The area was once a lush farming village but has become part of Chennai's expanding urban periphery. Locals are drilling bore wells to sell their groundwater. It's more profitable than using the water to irrigate crops.

Mother Nature or mismanagement?

Chennai's water shortage, and the unrest it has unleashed, were avoidable, says Srinivasan Janakarajan, president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies. He says Chennai's water shortage is not caused primarily by climate change, though that could indeed make matters worse.

"When somebody says, 'Sorry, you don't get rainfall. It's nature's fury,' I just cannot take it!" says an exasperated Janakarajan.

The problem is not Mother Nature, he says. It's unchecked urban growth, lack of reservoir maintenance, and overextraction of groundwater by public authorities and private landowners through bore wells.

Other environment experts say Chennai is a perfect example of how those things, exacerbated by climate change, can morph into a climate emergency. This is the type of water crisis that's becoming more frequent in the world's megacities.

"If you look at cities like Phoenix or Chennai or Cape Town, they're where land use and climate change will collide. So climate change and its effects will only worsen what has already been made worse by what we call development — the pattern of urbanization," says Jayaraman, the local activist.

Chennai gets most of its rain during the northeast monsoon season from October to January, though it also gets some showers in the southwest monsoon from June to September. In 2015, the city suffered deadly floods. But last year's monsoon was unexpectedly weak. Precipitation in Chennai has always been erratic. Overall, the city gets plenty of rain, but it has to conserve it better to last through the dry spells, Janakarajan says.

"Chennai is endowed with fantastic reservoirs, but they're encroached upon [by urbanization], clogged and silted up. The catchment areas are disappearing. There's no periodic maintenance," he says. "I'm not saying climate change is a fiction. It's science; it's happening. But for all our mismanagement, all our inefficiency, please don't hide behind climate change."

Janakarajan and many others accuse city and state officials of prioritizing growth and industry over residents' water supply. NPR contacted Chennai's water board, its chief engineer and the office of the chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu, whose capital is Chennai. Officials declined or did not respond to repeated requests over a two-week period for an interview.

The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Edappadi K. Palaniswami (his position is similar to a U.S. state governor), has accused the media of "creating an illusion" of water scarcity based on "some stray incidents" but says the situation is under control. The state's high court has nevertheless ordered his administration to submit a report explaining steps it has taken to mitigate the shortage.

Harvesting rainwater

In 2003, the state government did take action. Lawmakers passed the Tamil Nadu Groundwater Development and Management Act. It sought to regulate the numbers and locations of private bore wells by requiring landowners to apply for permits before drilling. It also mandated rainwater harvesting at all buildings. But the law was never really enforced and was repealed by an ordinance in 2013. The government has promised new legislation to replace it, but six years on, nothing has been passed.

In advance of that 2003 law, Tamil Nadu also commissioned Chennai's Rain Centre, a nonprofit organization inaugurated by the then-chief minister, to teach people how to harvest rain.

"Catch rain. It's free! That's our slogan," says Sekhar Raghavan, its affable 72-year-old founder and director.

The exterior of Raghavan's office building is outfitted with drainage pipes. They run from the building's roof, down into an underground cistern to store rainwater. He gives tours and rainwater demonstrations and was hosting a delegation of Australian diplomats and Canadian students on the day NPR visited.

But 16 years ago, when the state government first required residents to "catch rain," Raghavan says it was a tough sell. Not many people were willing to invest in drain pipes and tanks.

"Nobody bothered about this! Now they have realized, there's no water to buy. So I get 20 to 25 calls every day," he says.

People are desperate for advice, he says, on how to avoid buying water from expensive private tanker firms and how to collect it for free.

"This is a wake-up call for all of us," Raghavan says. "Future droughts, future floods — they're only going to get more severe, because the city is developing, and getting more and more built up."

"We have to change our habits right now," he says.

NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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