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Chennai Water Crisis: The Beginning of “Climate Apartheid” or an Era of Social Connectedness?

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Chennai’s Water Crisis. Image © User: Balaram Mahalder / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0
August 28, 2019

In 2015, Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, was ravaged by one of the deadliest floods it had seen in decades. Over 272 people lost their lives.[i] United by the indiscriminate downpour of nature, people banded together in a show of great resilience: ordinary citizens coalesced into rescue teams, trucks of supplies were delivered from other states, restaurants became shelters and food banks, and mosques all across the city opened their doors to people of all faiths.[ii]

Flash forward four years and Chennai has run dry, facing one of the worst water crises of its time. The four main reservoirs that supply Chennai’s water needs are nearly drained empty – a cumulative effect of poor monsoons, lack of reservoir maintenance, over-exploitation of lakes, unchecked urban growth, mismanagement of groundwater and lack of water conservation.[iii] A city of nearly 10 million, Chennai requires roughly 830 million liters of water a day to meet its needs.[iv] The Tamil Nadu government is struggling to meet this need and is bringing in trains of water from other states. The first such train arrived on July 12th, carrying 2.5 million liters of water.[v]

While the 2015 floods demonstrated the power of social connectedness and community resilience, the 2019 water crisis is deepening the chasm between the rich and poor.

According to Srinivasan Janakarajan, president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, one of the key contributors to the current water crisis was the over extraction of groundwater through bore wells. Landowners went unchecked as they dug bore wells that drained aquifers, while residents who could not afford to do the same had their taps run dry.

With the advent of the water crisis, a recent U.N. human rights report aptly captured the current predicament: “We risk a ‘climate apartheid’ scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.”[vi]

The wealthy have managed to escape this crisis with but a dent in their wallets, paying for private water tankers. Meanwhile, the underprivileged are either unable to afford private water suppliers and are completely dependent on rations of government-supplied water or are crippled under the burden of dispensing over half their monthly income on water.[vii] The price of water has more than tripled – while private supplies used to charge Rs. 1,600 (31 CAD) for 12,000 liters of water, they now charge Rs. 5,000 (96 CAD).[viii]

Not only are household chores affected, but entire livelihoods are at stake – restaurants cannot serve as many customers, washermen cannot take as many clothes, and farmers cannot cultivate short duration crops. R Govindan, a washerman, recounts, “Our income has halved ever since the water scarcity. We have to cut down on the number of clothes we collect because water is limited. Moreover, with all the extra effort, the number of clothes we can wash in a given time is also lesser.”[ix] Meanwhile, former washerman R Aiyyappan had to switch professions altogether due to the water scarcity: “…with the on-going crisis, you always need someone to help with bringing in water. I couldn’t do everything on my own, so I had to leave.”[x]

The burden of the water crisis is further exacerbated due to soaring summer temperatures hitting 40 degrees Celsius during periodic heat waves, with vulnerable populations such as the poor, elderly, and persons with disabilities being hit the hardest. 

The monsoon in Chennai is due in October, and yet, if it fails to arrive or replenish depleting water reserves, Chennai will be facing a critical water crisis with no immediate end in sight. Unfortunately, Chennai is not a unique case. A year ago, Cape Town had begun counting down to a Day Zero, though it ultimately managed to evade complete water depletion. Cities all over the world are at risk of running out of water. As we live in an era of impending climate disasters, it is imperative that the situation in Chennai be used as a lesson for other cities.

All of us, regardless of which city we live in, must advocate for systemic changes that prioritize environmental conservation and concrete infrastructural adjustments such as mandated rainwater-harvesting to both prevent and prepare for climate disasters. Water scarcity solutions already exist. Companies, non-profits, research institutions and global partnerships have come up with innovative solutions, such as fog catchers, re-purifying showerheads, and biodegradable dew-collectors. However, a concentrated political will to implement such measures before a climate emergency develops is amiss.

2015 proved that active communication, sharing resources and cohesive action can bolster a city against climate disasters. Today, with the development of new green technologies and smart approaches to sustainability, it is imperative that we share and implement this knowledge to ensure that all communities can equitably reap the benefits and that we can secure a future of social connectedness as opposed to ‘climate apartheid’.

[i] Seshadri, Archith. 2015. “Chennai Floods: Relief Effort Underway.” CNN. Cable News Network. December 7, 2015.

[ii] Ge, Krupa. 2019. “After #ChennaiRains: How Everyone Who Was Not Displaced (and Social Media) Helped Flood Victims.” July 16, 2019.

[iii] McCarthy, Joe. 2019. “India’s 6th Biggest City Is Running Out of Water.” Global Citizen. June 20, 2019.

Frayer, Lauren. 2019. “The Water Crisis In Chennai, India: Who’s To Blame And How Do You Fix It?” NPR. July 18, 2019.

[iv] Yamunan, Sruthisagar. 2019. “Tamil Nadu’s Plan to Transport Water to Chennai by Train Is Facing Resistance. Here’s Why.” June 30, 2019.

[v] Gupta, Swati. 2019. “Indian Water Train Arrives to Relieve Dry Chennai.” CNN. Cable News Network. July 12, 2019.

[vi] “UN Expert Condemns Failure to Address Impact of Climate Change on Poverty.” 2019. OHCHR. June 25, 2019.

[vii] P, Jinoy Jose. 2019. “Living without Water in Chennai.” Business Line. The Hindu BusinessLine. June 19, 2019.

[viii] “Private Vendors Increase Prices by Over 100% as Chennai Water Crisis Continues.” 2019. The Wire. June 19, 2019.

[ix] Akundi, Sweta. 2019. “How Chennai’s Washermen Are Coping with Water Scarcity.” The Hindu. July 9, 2019.

[x] Ibid.