In Depth

Dry Chennai: Indian megacity ‘running out of water’

Drought hits 4.6 million people as taps run dry during heatwave

Millions of people in Chennai are relying on government supplies of drinking water as a brutal heatwave leaves the vast city’s reservoirs almost completely dried out. 

Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is India’s sixth-largest city, with 4.6 million inhabitants recorded in the most recent census, in 2011. Now, hundreds of thousands are queuing for daily government deliveries of water as taps run dry, says CNN.

In an article for Chennai-based newspaper The Hindu, Markandey Katju says: “There are pictures going around of rows of women holding plastic buckets and waiting for tankers.

“IT firms, restaurants and the construction industry have all admitted that they are struggling without water. Clashes over water have been reported in some parts. It is a bad situation.”

Wealthier residents have been relying on private deliveries of water from other cities and towns in Tamil Nadu state, but demand exceeds supply, sending prices to levels well beyond the means of Chennai’s estimated 820,000 slum dwellers.

Waiting for the monsoons

Earlier this week, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu implored residents to minimise their use of water, warning that there is “a need to manage with available water” until the monsoon season arrives in October or November. But he insisted there was no cause for panic, adding: “Lorries are being sent continuously to areas to supply water ... wherever there is drinking water scarcity.”

The shortages are the result of low groundwater levels following years of reduced rainfall, with the situation worsened by a fatal heatwave that is affecting the entire country. Indeed, CNN says that a total of 600 million people across India are struggling with “high to extreme water shortages” during the dry season.

The Sunday Times reported last week that “tens of thousands have fled drought-stricken villages across northern India” followings weeks of 50C temperatures, with police deployed to keep order at wells. 

The new normal

Other parts of the globe are also struggling for drinking water, as a result of climate change and increasing population. Last year, Cape Town was days away from exhausting its water supply.

“This should be a wake-up call for city authorities and national governments around the world,” the Financial Times warned at the time. “Many of the world’s largest cities are acutely vulnerable to the effects of climate change - longer droughts, heavier rainfall, rising sea levels, fiercer wildfires, worsening air pollution and searing heatwaves.”

“This is part of the new normal,” agrees Esquire, “and it’s coming soon to a theatre near you.”

The Daily Telegraph warned last summer that more than five billion people could be suffering from water shortages by 2050.

The newspaper noted that legendary Wall Street trader Michael Burry - one of the only people to see the 2007 financial crisis coming - is now focusing his dealing activities on the commodity of water. 

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