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Poverty and Chennai Water Crisis

- Tonoya Trisha Das

Water crises globally have doubled since the 1960s due to growing demand of water and lack of supply. Seventeen countries around the world are facing withdrawals of 80% or more from available supply, forty-four countries are facing high levels of stress on water. More than forty per cent of water is withdrawn every year on an average. In India groundwater is withdrawn from rivers, lakes and streams. It is done largely to provide water for irrigation. Chennai had faced a severe water crisis in 2019.  The city gets between 1,300mm to 1,400 mm of rainfall annually. Being a rain-shadow city, it gets more than 80 per cent of its groundwater from the Northeast monsoons. Previously the rainwater was stored in ponds, lakes etc. which minimised the chances of run-off that a coastal city is usually prone to. According to a study by Chennai’s Anna University, the city had more than 60 water bodies in the beginning of the twentieth century. However, now there is only 28 water bodies. The city’s desalination plants can’t meet with the city’s water demand. Also, over the years the city has lost its green cover. This has contributed to the problem of depleting groundwater as there is no path for the rainwater to seep down under the soil. According to a NITI Aayog report, Chennai will lose all its ground water by 2020. According to the Water Resources Institute, ten million people in the city faces water crisis.

In 2008, The Second Master Plan was released which described its vision for 2026 to make Chennai a prime metropolis that will become more liveable, economically vibrant, environmentally sustainable and with better assets for the future generations. However, this policy has not been followed. Studies have shown that city’s planning didn’t consider the city’s water demand while developing infrastructure. Chennai had faced a water crisis in 2015 as well. According to a parliamentary panel, the water bodies was unable to cope with the real estate business. Groundwater is utilised to meet the ever-growing demand for economic development. In the process they have blocked water bodies that were important and acted as catchment areas and flood relief basins. Instead structures such as flats have been built over them. Urban planning should not only mean laying roads or constructing bridges or providing transport but also proper planning for sustainable development so that natural resources are not depleted. 

Chennai has a population of about 1 crore and this density has made the crisis even more severe. The residents were forced to wait hours for trucks that dispensed water. The government struggled to supply them minimum piped water from the desalination plants. They sourced this water from lakes, wells from outside the city or far away places. It became apparent that the government didn’t take preventive measures. After the shadow drought in 2018, the 2019 crisis was quite predictable and the government could have been more prepared to deal with the crisis. The 2019 water crisis was a wake-up call for the state government.

The city’s water crisis is not a new problem. In fact, it has been lurking since the past 50 years. The oldest source of water is the Palar river. Water from this river is diverted to the Poondi reservoir and the Chembarambakkam lake. Both these water bodies act as major water supply source to the residents of the city. However, due to low rainfall on the Palar basin and due to development activities, and the rising demand of water but with low rainfall on the Palar basin and with the expansion of Chennai city, the Tamil Nadu government made an agreement in 1977 with Andhra Pradesh to supply water from the Krishna river to the city. This project was named as the Krishna water supply project or the Telugu Ganga Project. In 1967 there was a proposal to supply water from the Veeranam Lake, outside Chennai but it failed due to corruption. However, it was revived in 2004 by J. Jayalalitha. But Veeranam Lake is dry almost all around the year. Hence, the project failed for the second time. The water level outside Chennai is higher than inside the city. However, even they buy water because the private companies have installed systems to withdraw water so that they can supply it in exchange for money. This has decreased the available groundwater for the locals. 

In the last few years, the water supply had consistently fallen. The government has to make a long-term plan to prevent such crisis in the future. Chennai’s water crisis has proved to be a critical challenge for the Jal Shakti ministry. The Jal Shakti ministry was set up after recognising the problem of water crisis in India. The ministry is supposed to play a leading role in resolving the tension in urban planning between the developmental needs of people and water security needs.  The Jal Shakti ministry is responsible for solving the problem of water crisis throughout the country. They should coordinate with the local authorities. Water scarcity coupled with overpopulation has been a frequent problem in the country. To encourage NGOs to install systems that can help recharge groundwater, NITI Aayog had proposed in its Water Index Report that the government should give them monetary incentives. The government and NGOs can also help spread awareness amongst the residents and demonstrate water saving methods such as rain water harvesting and other devices and practices. Droughts have become a way to earn profits for various, as water has to be sourced from the outside and supplied. Only long-term solutions can solve this problem.

Although the water crisis had impacted both the rich and the poor, the impact was unequal among them. The Chennai Municipal Boards supplied tankers at a lesser cost than the private companies. The difference was almost four/five times more. The wait for the government tankers was very long as there was a huge demand. Hence, the poor people couldn’t afford the tankers from the private companies and the wait for the government supplied tankers was too long. For people living in the slums, they couldn’t afford to pay almost more than half their monthly salary on water. The water crisis urged many to come out in the streets and protest. It has given rise to what has been termed as a ‘water rage’. It has largely impacted the law and order of the society. The news had reported that when an activist tried to stop his neighbour from storing access water, he was beaten to death. Many such instances were reported where it was found that a family had stored an excess amount of water while the others could barely get hold of enough water to drink. It has been pointed out that this was mostly done by some of the rich section of the society. 

While the tankers were supplying water from outside the city, many locals tried to stop these tankers as they feared that the constant water supply to Chennai would decrease their share of the water as well. The water scarcity also compelled many businesses like restaurants and cafes to close down. Less supply of water is continuing in 2020 as well in few parts of the city. The only way forward is proper long-term planning.


1) ‘A City Gone Dry: On Chennai’s Water Crisis’ (The Hindu, 26nd June) 
2) ‘Making China a Water-wise City’(The Hindu, 25th July)
3) ‘Chennai Water Crisis: A Wake up Call for Indian Cities’ (Down To Earth,  5th August)