Chennai, India is Facing an Unprecedented Water Shortage

One of the largest cities in India is running out of water. Is this our climate future?

Monsoons typically provide the bulk of water for Chennai, which is one of the largest cities in India. It is on the south eastern coast of the country, in the Tamil Nadu province.  This is a region that relies on seasonal monsoons to supply the bulk of water.

But last year’s monsoons were exceptionally weak, causing aquifers and other water sources to run dry.

Now in some neighborhoods if taps run at all, only a trickle comes out. Many neighborhoods are reliant on water trucks — if they can afford it. Meanwhile many people are fleeing the city while this crisis persists.

The proximate cause of this crisis is poor rains. But according to my guest today, Meera Subramanian, deeper political and social factors have exacerbated this crisis. This includes poor city planning and a focus on massive infrastructure projects of limited utility.

Meera Subramanian is a freelance journalist and independent author. She is the author of a book about water issues in India titled: A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka.

In July she wrote an op-ed in the New York Times which makes the case that disaggregated water resource management could be far more effective in combating crisis like the one we are seeing in Chennai today.

If you have 20 minutes and want to learn the implications of the fact that one of the largest cities in one of the most populous countries is running out of water, have a listen.


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What’s up first?

My father is from Chennai, so I have a huge extended family there. It is a quickly growing city at about eight million currently and one of India’s largest. It is right on the beach and has a lot of issues going on with water.

Why is Chennai running out of water?

They are very dependent on monsoon rains. This is a condition across South Asia. Monsoons deliver up to half of their water in a very short amount of time. You can’t just depend on rivers to tap into anytime.

The most recent monsoon season was far weaker than historical averages.

That’s right. It came late and the numbers for the peak monsoon in autumn was 55% less than usual. When that is half of your water, you’re down to a quarter of your demand being reached. The rain stopped by early December and they went 200 days without rain.

How are your friends and family dealing with this?

They said it changes depending on where you are in the city. Their primary reservoirs are virtually dried up, though. They are getting rain as we speak, so there is hope of recharge. Piped water has been out in some parts of the city for upwards of four months. A lot of people in India do not have dependable, 24/7 piped water like we have the luxury of in the U.S. Many of my upper middle class cousins get water from a variety of sources. With the advent of the crisis of the past month, one of my cousins said the water tanker deliveries were coming in sporadically and the price had doubled. One cousin said they actually drilled a second borewell, and he had to go down 170 feet. Ten to fifteen years ago that would have been 120 feet. So, even if there is water, people are having to reach farther to get it which is not sustainable.

If you aren’t middle class, how do you deal with that?

That is the terrifying part. There are places that are dependent on water not just for daily life and sanitation, but for their livelihood. Those are the people impacted most and those are the people we often do not hear from. For example, in Chennai the places that used to be wetlands have been encroached upon by development. These are unplanned settlements so they are vulnerable in terms of access to water and vulnerable for when heavy rains do come.

In your reporting in Chennai and places where there have been water shortages, have you observed a gender dynamic?

Absolutely. Women are the ones who are responsible for water for the most part. Think about how much we need water for cooking and cleaning. Those chores are primarily done by women, and not just in India. The New York Times had a picture of a man, but it is mostly women doing this work.

Can you describe what investments are being planned in terms of giant infrastructure around water?

India is a major player in building mega dams. Throughout the country, there are areas that are more water abundant or water poor. Because the northern monsoon and the southern monsoon come at different times, there is this idea that we can just move water where we have it, to where we need it, when we need it. India has been working on these major infrastructure projects to connect rivers. Once it is done, it will be the greatest engineering feat on the face of the Earth. The tricky part is that water goes where it wants. It is fighting nature in that way. There are also huge questions around displacement of human communities and around the fracturing of ecosystems.

In Chennai, desalination plants are at the next frontier as well.

That’s right. India is working really hard to get all of its population on the grid in the first place. There are huge areas of the country that do not have dependable electricity. To their credit, the government is really pushing renewable energy. But India feels like they have every right to get power to their people in any way possible, so they are also building coal plants. Either way, desalination plants take a lot of energy. The suck up saltwater, extract drinking water, and then what goes back out is briny water along with the chemicals from the process. It is not a sustainable answer.

You identify some potentially sustainable solutions that seem to be more localized.

In my book, I focused on an area in Rajasthan. I met a fellow who was a good hearted, young activist. He wanted to be a doctor or a health care worker, but what the locals emphasized that what they really needed was water. The landscape had been left fallow because they didn’t have water to sustain it. An older man said they used to have dams and asked for help just building these small scale dams across the landscape in a cascading effect to catch the rain going downhill. It makes the water pause long enough to seep down and recharge the aquifer. Within just a couple years of him building these dams, the wells started to come back to life. They did this across the entire district and built thousands of dams.

A big argument of my book is that India is a place of small scale. The farmers are all working on two or three acres, and life in general is small scale. When we think about reviving these historical water resource methods, we still need big scale projects, but we should look at the two methods in conjunction with one another.

In a place like Chennai, is there pushback against this rapid development?

Yes, this is the part that is most frustrating. India as a democracy is vulnerable to campaign slogans. Big projects are sexier to get people voting. “We are going to fix leaky pipes” is not a good slogan. It is hard to get politicians to embrace that and to get citizens to support them if so.

If there is another monsoon season as dry as the last, do you expect a significant out migration?

I imagine that will have to happen. When I spoke to my family, some of them with kids in multiple cities had decided to leave. Those are people who have the option to leave, but people will have to face some hard questions about where they can live and survive comfortably.

Going forward, I hope that we can figure out how to tap into these natural systems instead of just pretending we can build big. That interlinking river project only works to move water from one place to another if there is water there to begin with.

Shownotes by Lydia DeFelice