Monday, August 05, 2019

No end to crisis in sight as drought grips India’s Chennai

People gather around a 50-wagon train carrying water into Chennai © AFP
Murugan Sundaramurthy’s water business is buoyant. His fleet of tanker trucks have been fanning out across the countryside around Chennai for two decades, sucking water from boreholes and delivering it to homes to quench the city’s thirst.
But demand today is as high as he can remember, prompting him to add 500 more vehicles to his existing fleet of 4,500.
The public water supply, the supposed alternative for his customers, has been reduced to a trickle by a withering drought. But the shortages also reflect a pervasive problem across India: water management by the authorities that has been inadequate for years.
Rain or shine, Chennai depends on water trucks because officials have neglected to invest in water infrastructure while allowing developers to build on wetlands.
One result is rising communal tensions. Rural residents living near Chennai have staged violent protests to draw attention to complaints that their wells are being drained dry to supply the city by members of a “water mafia” such as Mr Sundaramurthy.
The businessman, who pays Rs400 ($5.75) for a tanker full of well water, argues that he supplies an essential service. “I agree that I am stealing water, that I am a robber, but the people drinking the water are also complicit in the crime,” he says.
Map showing risk of water scarcity in much of India is extremely high
The drought this year has been so severe that experts say a days-long deluge at the end of July will have had no impact. “The water levels in the reservoirs have dropped below 10 per cent, a few days of rain is not going to bring up the reservoir levels up,” said Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive officer of Council of Energy, Environment and Water, a non-profit policy research group based in Delhi, adding that the rain “does not solve chronic water mismanagement”.
Critics blame the local authorities. Unlike in Cape Town, South Africa — which mounted an extensive water conservation campaign last year as drought took hold to avert “day zero”, the day it said water would run out — authorities in Chennai at first dismissed the crisis as fake news.
Water scarcity was a “media creation”, K Palaniswami, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, said in June, even as vicious fights were breaking out in queues for water and some companies were telling staff to work from home because of the shortage. 
After weeks of pressure, the minister announced that 50-wagon trains carrying water from outlying districts would supply Chennai until October, when the monsoon rains are expected to fall. 
While hot weather and droughts are not new to India, the rapidly urbanising country of 1.3bn is increasingly vulnerable to climate change. As conditions worsen, officials in many Indian cities have been criticised for failing to plan for drought and flooding. 
By 2050, an estimated 750m people in South Asia will face extreme water shortages, with 1.8bn facing chronic shortages, according to Mr Ghosh’s organisation. 
“The civil strife in this country will start from water, not from religion,” said agricultural economist Ashok Gulati. “Over the next 10 to 20 years, the situation is going to worsen because it requires massive investment and I don’t think we prioritise water.”
Vasudevan Narishmhan, a farmer who represents a village of 2,000 people, said: “The tankers just indiscriminately take water and that is affecting us, but we are powerless in terms of protesting.”
Chennai is known for its unpredictable weather. “If you look at the past two centuries, the monsoon is always erratic. It’s pure luck,” said weather expert Pradeep John. 
The city is called India’s Detroit for its booming automobile sector. It is also home to a burgeoning IT hub. But it is emblematic of problems across India.
“The Chennai situation is very unfortunate, but it was also predictable. India’s governance has always been reactive instead of proactive, there is a lack of forward planning,” said Aparna Roy, climate change expert at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. 
Grand water conservation schemes announced by the government have not had much of an impact, said Ms Roy. “India is not in denial about climate change, but the approach is fragmented. There are many states where funding is available [but] the money is just lying there.”
Big companies can afford to avert scarcity. Hyundai, one of the main car manufacturers in the region, has installed its own rainwater harvesting system and water treatment plant. “It’s a bit expensive, but I think not having water is more expensive,” said Hyundai spokeswoman Devdatta Mulchandani. 
Harsha Koda, who heads an association of apartment owners, has also installed a rainwater harvesting system. “My wife and I have been going around like evangelicals talking about this,” said Mr Koda. 
But he worries that not enough people have embraced water conservation. “Public memory is very short,” he said.
Additional reporting by Divya Karthikeyan
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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