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Water & Sanitation

India’s 6th Biggest City Is Running Out of Water

Why Global Citizens Should Care
The water crisis in Chennai is emblematic the water shortages that are becoming increasingly common around the world. The United Nations Global Goal 6 urges countries to more sustainably manage water supplies to avoid problems in the future. You can join us in taking action on related issues here.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Chennai, India’s sixth biggest city, have recently been lining up for hours every day in the scorching heat to fill plastic containers with water, according to the CNN.

That’s because the city, which has a population of 4.5 million, is facing a dire water shortage. It’s the latest major metropolitan area in the world to be squeezed by climate change, drought, mismanagement of water supplies, and soaring demand for water.

The reservoirs that Chennai relies upon are nearly dry and inconsistent rainfall in recent months has prevented them from replenishing. In fact, the four main reservoirs are 1% as full as they were during the same period last year when the city was struggling with another water shortage, according to Reuters.

The city’s groundwater supplies are also rapidly shrinking as communities increasingly turn to water private wells. New wells drilled by desperate citizens, however, often yield contaminated water, the BBC reports.

This year’s water crisis is especially disastrous because India is in the grip of a powerful heatwave that has so far killed at least 36 people.

Chennai’s government has begun paying trucks to bring water from elsewhere in the country to the city to ensure low-income people who don’t have access to running water in their homes stay hydrated. Wealthy citizens are also securing their own truckloads of water, although shipments have been unable to meet demand and incidents of violence surrounding the delivery of water have been reported.

Further, the more than 800,000 people who live in the city’s slums have been unable to receive assistance from water tankers, according to CNN.  

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"The city is facing a lot of weather problems right now,” Zoha, a radio presenter, in Chennai told the BBC. “In the past 10 years, this is the longest that the city has gone without rainfall.”

"There is no amount of money that can buy water at the moment because there are people who are willing to spend thousands of rupees just to get a few litres of water but they are not able to get even that,” he added.

Hotels, restaurants, and other businesses have had to reduce their hours or temporarily close because water has become prohibitively expensive, and everyday people have had to pause their lives to cope with the crisis. Punitha, a mother of two, told NDTV, that her children are unable to go to school because of a lack of water.

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Chennai’s water crisis has been building for years. In 2017, the city had to ration water amid a serious drought, and the city’s groundwater and reservoirs have been steadily declining due to mismanagement of supplies, CNN reports.

The problem has been made significantly worse by climate change, according to the BBC. Precipitation has become less frequent and the annual monsoon season, which would normally bring substantial rain to the city, has been delayed, two consequences of climate change.

Other regions of the world have faced extreme water shortages in recent years.

South Africa’s Cape Town nearly became the first major city to run out of water in 2018 when city officials warned that they would be shutting off the taps in people’s homes and instituting strict water rationing rules.

Lake Chad, which supplies water to millions of people in central Africa, has shrunk by 95% in recent decades, and the Dead Sea is vanishing in the Middle East, exposing millions more to water shortages.

The UN warns two-thirds of the global population could face inconsistent water access as soon as 2025 and conflicts over water could begin in the decades ahead.

Read More: Cape Town Has Averted Crisis for Now — But Areas Across South Africa Are Still Running Out of Water

In many ways, India is representative of this water-stressed future. As of last year, more than 600 million people in India had trouble getting enough water, and the country’s population is expected to grow by 300 million by 2050.

"Unless we adapt our water storage to suit the change in rain intensity, we're going to suffer really badly," Jyoti Sharma, founder and president of FORCE, an Indian NGO working on water conservation, told CNN. "All parts of India — rural, urban, everybody."