What happened when Chennai – a bustling metropolitan city in India ran out of water? Yes, Chennai was recently hit by the dreaded Zero Day. The author reports from ground zero…

Taps go dry…

It is a usual practice that after finishing my morning runs, I prefer a cold-water bath to recover quickly from the muscle soreness. It was about 7:00 AM in the morning and the usual humidity of Chennai was hitting hard already. “There is no supply of water today, we only have to use what we have left out from yesterday”, my dad came out of his room telling this to me. Well, this was unusual, since I have not heard any such thing in the area where I live in Chennai. Unusual dialogue on a usual morning set in motion the extraordinary events that were about to unfold with the passage of the day.

We did not have enough water stored for a family of five. We were feeling clueless as to how to manage if the water supply was not restored. Our neighbours were also complaining about the same problem. The chaos started to intensify as the day passed and the water supply was not restored. A sense of restlessness was beginning to set-in.

Just as I walked out of my apartment and I knew that the problem was real and the situation was grave. The most dreaded thing had happened – the city of Chennai had actually run out of water. Neighbours and friends were fighting amongst themselves for a share of water from the water tanker, perhaps the last few drops of water remaining in the city.

The days to follow were really hard to imagine. In my apartment, we used to get water once in the morning, everyday – about 9000 litres. This slowly changed to once every two days. For an apartment that had twelve residents this made things difficult initially. We had to slowly get used to the reality and learnt to manage with less water through judicious consumption of water. We could still manage, but the problem outside of my apartment was really bad. I could not have a myopic view this entire issue with only what was happening in my apartment.

Soon, news channels were speaking about it, heated debates, pointing fingers but the solution was still far from near.

It was scary to talk to people about this, since there was anger prevalent everywhere. Long queues of people with water buckets became a common sight on all residential roads. The delayed monsoon added to the woes. The reservoirs which supplied water to the city had dried out.

Politics over water

Like water, even the suffering was not equally distributed. The politics over water and the water mafia seemed to be working in tandem.

There were 5 categories of people one could see during this crisis.

  • The ones whose supply only got ‘reduced’ which meant they were consuming less than they were earlier. One could still manage. It took a couple of weeks to come in terms with the less supply, but eventually they got used and understood they were only consuming more, earlier.
  • Those who never suffered – yes, the five-star hotels and big restaurants never ran out of water Hotels, turned towards eco-friendly alternatives, such as banana leaves over steel plates, since there was only water for drinking, and they could not afford to ‘buy’ water to clean all the vessels.
  • Politicians – they were still getting water 9000 litres, 3 times a day for a family of 5 people – How was this possible. It will never cease to surprise you. So, there is no use talking/discussing about this aspect. Your guess is as good as mine.
  • The ones who had really planned well – there was a percentage which believed in preserving natural wells over bore wells and was still able to ‘sustain’ during the crisis.
  • The real ones who suffered – a large majority of families living in the city who had to manage with just one bucket of water, approx. 75 litres per day.

This fifth category is the set of people who really suffered. This was the larger majority.  Their suffering was in fact much more than what was portrayed to the outside world. The challenges on an everyday basis was real. Parents could not send their children to school; Government schools were closed since ‘sanitation’ became a challenge. People had to take a bath once in ‘three’ days and that too in a round-robin fashion (a member of a family gets his/her turn to bathe one at a time) to ‘conserve’ water.

As the weeks passed the situation started getting worse. The famous IT corridor of Chennai which provides employment to more than 10 lakh people faced a major crisis. The first two weeks saw a lot of people in this ‘region’ choosing to get to work space to take a bath since there was no access to water at their home. Apparently, the commercial units were still managing to get some supply of water. Many commercial establishments faced with severe water shortage closed offices, asking employees to work from home since basic facilities like providing drinking water and sanitation became a challenge.

The private water tanker lorries which used to charge INR 800/- for 9000 litres for a domestic demand, increased the rate to INR 2400/- to fight the demand, which only reemphasised that those who had money, could get access to water. The private tanker’s drivers still used to situation to earn more, by taking back about 1000 litres stating it has got late, and cannot fill more and would sell it at INR 3/litre to commercial spaces which were willing to pay.

The drying up of water in Chennai did not happen in one day. Nature sent us signals of the impending crisis much before it actually hit the city, yet we chose to ignore it every time. Catastrophic impacts are expected when nature’s signals are ignored time and again.

Rewind back to November 2015. The rains in Chennai had not stopped. The incessant heavy downpour for days led to an unexpected flooding of the city.  The apartment where I live, had water running up to the first floor which meant the vehicles in the parking lot got submerged; the families who lived on the ground floor had to shift to neighbours place living on the first floor. The city was under water. Some blamed the government for inaction, others blamed the nature for its fury. A lot of people suffered. A lot of people lost their livelihoods, and many lost their lives. Only when rains ceased, the waters actually receded. I honestly had to blame the Civic planning and encroachments of water bodies as the primary reason for this to happen. Floods were bad but the fact that we lost all the rain water due to poor rain-harvesting programs. The city didn’t have enough lakes, or storage space to hold the water which was let out when the dams were opened.

The waters were let into the ocean, because there was no way so much water could be stored.  Such a waste! First we encroached nature’s home, we occupied her space, we disrespected her, and finally we didn’t know what to do when she gave in abundance.

Fast forward one year, 2016 December – Chennai faced the worst cyclone in about 100 years uprooting close to 2 lakh fully-grown trees, which took years to grow. Poor urban planning meant that there were no planning for preventing such damages or recovering from the same.  We had to eventually wake up to a ‘Zero Day’.

This cannot be only Chennai’s story. Every major city in the world today is staring at similar crisis. Climate change is real and none of us are unaffected by it. Chennai is the sixth major metro in India and was once known as the Venice of India. There ‘was’ a beautiful canal which ran across the city. Cooum River was one major route for trade in Chennai. Imagine, before there was Metro rails, Chennai had a beautiful Canal called Buckingham canal running across the city.

So, how did Chennai, become a city which could face both flood and drought in quick succession? Are there other cities which face a similar crisis? What can we do to get out of this?

Absence of timely intervention to desilt channels and a lack of adequate dams lead to high run-off leading to wastage of water.

Waterway for the future

In countries like India, having highly populated cities, government cannot be the panacea of all problems, including that of water. They do play a major role in planning water management strategies and investing in the infrastructure. Yet without the participation of citizens and corporates showing more responsibility, the ground realities will never change.

Chennai did not receive the regular rainfall from 2017 till 2018 and the monsoon of 2019 was delayed and we really faced the wrath. The Government was still helpful in terms of getting water from Jollarpettai, a nearby town via train to Chennai as a firefighting measure.

Desilting needs to be done to increase the capacity of the water bodies since the reservoirs have gone dry. There is need for more desalination plants in the city to meet the growing needs of the demand for water. The biggest step of nationalisation of rivers must not be a distant dream for India – it must happen soon.

At a Macro level, it is extremely important for any Government to evaluate the country’s natural water resource strength. Even if the levels of total annual water consumption in comparison to available annual renewable supply is high, the country might necessarily need not fall under the category of water scarcity.

Singapore, for example, is densely populated and has no freshwater lakes or aquifers, and its demand for water far exceeds its naturally occurring supply.

According to World Resource Institute, “Singapore is consistently held up as an exceptional water manager. Singapore invests heavily in technology, international agreements, and responsible management, allowing it to meet its freshwater needs. Advanced rainwater capture systems contribute 20 percent of Singapore’s water supply, 40 percent is imported from Malaysia, grey water reuse adds 30 percent, and desalination produces the remaining 10 percent of the supply to meet the country’s total demand. These forward-thinking and innovative management plans provide a stable water supply for Singapore’s industrial, agricultural, and domestic users—even in the face of significant baseline water stress.”

It is important to analyse the consumption pattern of water at a country level, with respect to its annual renewable supply to understand which sector demands more water and which sector actually ‘needs’ for the resource to itself be perennial and not perish over time.

This data will be extremely important for understanding the countries at risk – for better planning and management at a large scale.

There are two areas which we could have done in the past is, to improve enforcement of existing laws on rainwater harvesting. Rapid urbanisation has led to the construction of more and more pavement, that prevent rainwater absorption and groundwater recharge. Green spaces and wetlands-recharge points-need to be created across the city. Chennai’s lakes and rivers have been affected by sewage dumping.

In my opinion, there must be a check on commercialising natural resources like water, which is one basic need for a human to live. Imagine, in a few years paying for ‘pure’ oxygen?

A Few countries do this already, but the point is a general perception shift to majority of the population in the world that only ‘purchased’ oxygen is pure and natural is impure.

When the concept of bottled waters came people laughed at it, but now it is hard for people to get out of it.

 When you ‘commercialise’ nature – you have to dearly ‘pay’ for it.

Even during this crisis, I hardly saw bottled water companies (without taking names) run out of supply. I never saw a drop in the supply of aerated drinks. From where did they get access to water? We have answers, but who is to be blamed? Approving authorities or consumers creating demand?

At a Micro level, there are two dimensions to the solutions. As Consumers, we must collectively move away from our preference of consuming bottled mineral waters and demand for water points, where we can carry our bottles and fill up.

It is an undeniable truth that we have allowed ourselves to be told that only mineral water is healthy. I grew up drinking boiled tap water, and never have I ever faced any problem. On a personal level, this is a dream for me – but this will take time. We must stop using single use plastics. Much has been told on this, since the disposal of plastics is a problem and these form a layer underneath the roads and prevent rainwater from entering the ground water.

Whatever said and done, consumption power has the biggest impact on the environment and economy.

The Next generation needs to be taught about the importance of natural resources and at a school level, there must be more focus on projects aimed at water conservation. This is preparing the future generation to not only respect but also scientifically understand the implications of our actions on the environment.

There are NGO groups working tirelessly with a lot of campaigns aimed at protecting and preserving the nature. Even if this is not helping in bringing out a solution, the idea is about creating widespread awareness.

I am sure, we will get out of this, but actions will speak. Expecting the government to only take action and without taking accountability and ownership at an individual level is not going to help at all. As every individual, we need to love this planet as much as we want it to love us back, if we value sustainability and wish to flourish once again. The micro level and macro level solutions must shake hands. Instead, if we continue to fight this game of ‘survival of the fittest’ with nature and consume more of her space, then undoubtedly the fittest will survive – sooner or later.

About the author

V. Shriram

V. Shriram is a happy and aspiring long distance runner, who truly believes words have the power to heal and to break. He actively writes about Human behaviour in his blog and was nominated for the 2017 Indian Blogger awards under 5 categories. He also enjoys asking ‘how’ and answering ‘why’, and works for Freshworks in Chennai.