The Chennai Water Crisis, Explained

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Chennai, India is home to nearly 10 million people, making it India’s sixth-largest city. The city’s massive population is all but certain to face a massive water shortage that could have devastating effects on its people, and it might be the first of many cities to face a similar crisis.

A side-by-side comparison of the Puzhal Lake reservoir — one of Chennai’s primary water sources — in June 2018 and June 2019 shows the severity of the city’s water shortage. In photos taken in June 2018, the reservoir was full of water, with urban dwellings resting calmly at its shoreline. Just a year later, those dwellings are next to massive swaths of sand, which are exposed now that the reservoir’s water levels have dramatically dwindled. The water’s color has even changed, from its deep navy shade last year to a pale, sickly blue this year. Three other reservoirs in Chennai have similarly experienced massive declines in water content.

Although there is still some water left, the past year’s shift has already been enough to cause social upheaval in Chennai. Currently, citizens are standing in lines that span several blocks to merely access water. Restaurants are unable to serve people due to a severe lack of water. Disputes between citizens over water have even led to death. Many citizens have already fled the city in favor of areas with stronger water access. 

The Indian government has sent water tankers to Chennai to attempt to provide the city’s citizens with ample water. However, many have at least partially blamed the current crisis on the Indian government’s laxness when faced with signs of upcoming water shortages. An expert with the Centre for Science and Environment, an organization based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, described the Chennai crisis as “not surprising” given the government’s lack of concern. 

Climate change is also in huge part to blame for Chennai’s current crisis. Scientists, including those at the Centre for Science and Environment, have correlated climate change and the temperature increases that cause it with the decreased frequency of rain across India as well as the country’s delayed monsoon season. These causes may be the driving factors of Chennai’s water crisis, and they could easily trigger similar water crises all across India. As many as 100 million Indian citizens could suffer when water sources in 21 major Indian cities including New Delhi run out of water — and this could happen as soon as 2020.

In the face of climate change, water shortages in major global cities are all but certain to become more frequent. Cape Town, South Africa has already faced a similar crisis to the one currently occurring in Chennai, but with intense conservation efforts and a fortuitous increase in rainfall, the city climbed its way back from its shortage (but is still not quite water secure). Mexico City, Tokyo, London, Beijing, and many more metropolitan areas with tens of millions of citizens may experience similar water crises sooner than later, highlighting the need for both climate change combat efforts and government policy that inform how societies will function when faced with water shortages.

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