Chennai, India, Experiences Water Emergency; Other Global Cities Face Same Fate

Water scarcity. If the term isn’t deeply familiar or downright dreadful to you at the moment, now is the time to take a step back and appreciate the privilege that comes with having an easily-accessible source of clean, potable water (likely located in your own home).

For the past five months, the majority of the 8.6 million people living in the metro region of Chennai, India, could not say the same for themselves. During a drought that lasted for 200 days, Chennai ran out of water. Droughts are typical during these hot summer months, but they historically haven’t caused such severe water scarcity, because groundwater stores used to be able to tide the city over until the rains came again.

Climate change is partly to blame for this year’s water woes. Heat waves have been scorching India this year, especially in the southwest plateau where Chennai is located — the city’s maximum temperature has risen over two degrees Fahrenheit since 1950. And the delay of seasonal monsoons contributed to the slow disappearance of Chennai’s four major reservoirs.

But climate change is only the tip of the iceberg; it’s an exacerbating factor rather than a causal one. India’s reliance on groundwater far surpasses that of the U.S. and China combined, and usually the country sees enough annual rainfall to sustain its population’s typical consumption. The most pressing problem is that rapid urbanization and the land degradation that followed has eliminated groundwater stores that feed reservoirs (marshlands, forests, lakes, aquifers, etc.), ultimately leaving communities to suffer the effects of acute water crisis when the weakened reservoirs run dry.

Between 1980 and 2010, construction in Chennai increased from 47 square kilometers to 402, while wetlands shrank from 186 to 71.5 square kilometers. Chembarambakkam Lake, one of Chennai’s four large reservoirs, is now cracked and muddy, sitting downhill from a Hyundai automotive plant that consumes great amounts of rain and groundwater. The Pallikaranai marshlands have been overtaken by IT companies and a garbage dump. Farmers, with no freshwater for their crops, are turning to drilling bore wells that further deplete and degrade groundwater sources. Meanwhile, the Indian government has moved towards desalination of seawater to try to mitigate the effects of drought season, which means massive energy usage and more toxic brine pumped into coastal areas.

That’s why Srinivasan Janakarajan, president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, argues that climate change has been relatively unimportant to this current drought: “I’m not saying climate change is fiction. It’s science; it’s happening. But for all our mismanagement, all our inefficiency, please don’t hide behind climate change.”

What’s more, if its current rate of population growth stays constant, India is projected to become the world’s most populous country in just five years (surpassing China). A rising population will continue to spur land conversion to reservoir-hostile uses, exacerbate the effects of climate change, and make the challenge of managing a rapidly-disappearing water supply an even harder one to plan for and overcome.

We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow land conversion (population stabilization would immensely help with both); otherwise, water emergencies like the one in Chennai will increase in frequency and severity, and will become more commonplace around the world. According to a new study, a quarter of the world’s population lives in the 17 countries currently experiencing “extremely high” water stress. We should act quickly to ensure that water stress doesn’t become water scarcity.

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