An Analysis of the Urban Water Crisis

Water, water everywhere,  nor any drop to drink”

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.

Roughly three-fourths or 75% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, which is why it is also known as the blue planet. However, the amount of water available for consumption and human use amounts to only 1% of the combined water resources on our planet. Water as a resource is abundant but it comes at a cost. With the passage of time, water has become an economic commodity that is highly valued. Today, the world is witnessing water wars, whereby, conflicts between states are centered around the sharing of water resources.

The distribution of water across the world is not equal much like the distribution of human life. It is not surprising to see that during ancient times, civilizations thrived around prominent rivers. On the other hand, water is also a cause for disaster and destruction. The problems created by water can be seen as two extremes. Natural calamities such as flooding and tsunami have caused several catastrophic crises across the world. On the other hand, the shortage of water causes droughts that have the potential to affect large sections of the human population. Over time, it can be said that water has become a formidable force, critical for the existence of human life.

The case of Chennai

It is not an unknown fact, that Chennai, the sixth-largest city in India, is facing a severe water crisis at present. The water source for Chennai comes from 4 reservoirs located in the outskirts of the city. The Chemberambakkam, Cholavaram, Puzhal and Poondi lakes have always catered to the water needs of the city, having ensured that there was a steady supply of water to the residents. However, during the summer of this year, the reservoirs went dry, entangling the residents in peril. Apart from these reservoirs, the city depends on two de-salination plants as well, that operate along the Chennai coast. However, these plants have also reduced their supply due to constraints in their operation.
This crisis has severely affected everyday life and economic activity in the city. The plight of the residents who travel several kilometers for obtaining drinking water is indeed saddening. Moreover, the effect of this crisis is disproportionate, as many apartment complexes and affluent residential areas in the city have been able to afford private tankers. It is actually the poor and slum dwellers who have been harshly affected by this difficulty. In fact, it is the women, who are facing the brunt of this issue. Also, many commercial establishments like hotels and even educational institutions have restricted their operations due to the crisis.

Sadly, the state government’s response to this calamity has been rather unsatisfactory. In an effort to aid and abet the city’s residents, the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala have offered to send water to Tamil Nadu via rail. Many residents feel that this crisis is a result of the mismanagement of water resources and the lack of a sustainable policy approach. It is not very difficult to accept this view, because Chennai did face flood-like situations quite recently, in the months of November and December. Regrettably, the State government has remained in denial and has even refused to accept this as a crisis, while continuing to maintain their stance of a water shortage. However, the officials from the desalination plant have confirmed that 17 districts of the state are facing drought-like conditions.

During the previous monsoon, the Greater Chennai Metropolitan region received close to 120 centimeters of rain. With regard to water supply in Chennai, the city’s needs are met by reservoirs that are located outside the city. This means that there is no source of water located within. These reservoirs have been created by upstream storage of rivers such as the Cooum and Adayar that flow through the city. This would mean that most of the water feeding into these rivers is held back in these reservoirs. With the water supply cut off, these rivers have become extensions of the sewage system of the city.

This issue has greater gravity because of the fact that every year the monsoon season witnesses the flooding of the city. The question that now arises is this. Why is there plenty of water and yet a scarcity when it actually comes to usage? The same city makes it to the news for both issues, but at different points in time. This substantiates the view that mismanagement is a primary cause of this issue. The lack of proper management of water resources is a larger issue that is pertinent to the entire country. Cities like Bengaluru that were once known for its lakes have lost a substantial number of water bodies due to factors such as urbanization and pollution.

The roots of the crisis

The water shortage in Chennai is not an isolated event but the reflection of a deeper crisis. Water management has been a huge problem for many cities in India. The UN World Urbanization Prospects 2018 Report stated that 34% of the Indian population resides in urban areas. With the urban population rapidly growing, the demand for water is constantly on the rise. But the other side to this is that it is creating immense pressure on the available water resources in the city to provide for the increasing population. The scope for expanding the sources of water is much lesser than the rate at which the urban population is growing.

Urbanization is also creating pressure on the natural environment of the region. Over the years, it has been found that the environmental impact of the urbanization of cities has worsened by 50%. The major concern is the storm runoff during the monsoon seasons that contributes to a shortage of water in summer. As more and more of the land’s surface is being covered in concrete, the seepage of rainwater into the ground to recharge the water table is being hindered. Although the rainwater gets collected by storm water drains which then release it into other water bodies, this may not essentially help in recharging the groundwater table.

To put things in perspective, this is a huge challenge because demand is increasing, and the prospects of building the supply channels are reducing every year. In the case of the state of Tamil Nadu, there are many other factors in play. Chennai has gained prominence because it is the capital city. However, many other small urban clusters in the state have been silently suffering without much attention. As these regions do not have established means of water supply like Chennai, the problem is even more intense with people being left to fend for themselves.

Climate change and global warming have now begun to present visible signs of change in our environment. Monsoons are now wetter, summers hotter and winters colder. Extremes in climatic conditions are now more common than before. Studies have been able to point out that climate change has indeed made our cities and people more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the United Nations has, in fact, warned about the fact that the subcontinent is set to experience more droughts as well as floods in the coming years.

The problem however, does not end here. Construction activity that takes place without consideration for the topography is also a concern. Many lakes have been encroached and the land has been used for the construction of high-rise buildings. This has created a major environmental hazard for the city. These lakes played the role of outlets for rain water. Now that these lakes have been filled, there is no channel for the passage of rainwater, and it ends up flooding the city during the monsoons. However, in summer, as these lakes no longer exist, the water table is not adequately recharged resulting in a severe water shortage. This, therefore, creates an on-going cycle of floods and droughts.

Solutions for the future

Management of this crisis is not an easy task because it is set against the backdrop of a larger environmental issue. There are some steps within the capability of the city’s corporation to undertake. Regulating construction activity by preventing the encroachment of lakes should be a top priority. Cleaning and evicting these encroachments will ensure that water bodies within the city are replenished during the monsoons. In addition to this, redesigning the storm water runoff system to enable water penetration into the ground would aid the process of replenishing the groundwater table.

Individuals and civil society organizations have a big role to play in terms of this water crisis. It is our responsibility as individuals, to ensure that our usage of water does not involve any kind of depletion of the available resources. Small steps towards conserving water can go a long way, but these need to be coordinated at the larger level. Awareness about the need to preserve water and the way to go ahead should permeate into the society to include all segments. It is usually likely for this awareness to manifest in action during periods of crisis but not sustain later. Behavioural and policy research to identify ways in which action can be sustained and eco-friendly practices can be adopted is also an important step ahead.

Day Zero, a day with no water, is not very far away. But we still have the time to postpone such a day further, or prevent it altogether. The water crisis that is affecting many Indian cities is a wake-up call for collective action. Together, we can build sustainable practices that can save our lakes and water bodies. Local governments along with the cooperation of the community can be the change that the world needs to usher in immediately. It is time we recognize our vulnerabilities and act towards building resilience.

Picture Courtesy- CSR Asia

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