Chennai’s water crisis in the summer of 2019 has been at the forefront of international news.
What hasn’t been so widely reported is that authorities estimated that almost every major city in India will run out of water by 2050 if they don’t implement effective management strategies.
The figures are shocking, and this problem has been escalating for the last twenty years. Groundwater is running out, climate-dependent water supplies are at significant risk, and so much of the nation’s drinkable water is lost or wasted through poor storage and leaking infrastructure.
“Urbanization in India is raising many challenges, but none are as critical as the provision of water. And, on many measures, this challenge is far from being entirely met. For a start, a significant portion of urban Indians lacks access to piped water. In 2015-16, according to data from the National Family Health Survey, 31% of urban households lacked access to piped water or public tap water—a proportion that has not decreased significantly for nearly two decades.
Even for households with connections, their pipes are in danger of running dry because of the dwindling water supply. One estimation of this is per capita water availability, which measures the total amount of water supplied in the country after adjusting for population. India’s per capita water availability is decreasing and is expected to continue to do so dramatically. For a country with a growing share of the urban population, this will only add another stress point.”
In just ten years, by 2030, just over 150 million Indians will be living in water-stressed cities, with Jaipur predicted to be the second most water-stressed city in the entire world.
However, we can find the solution to the problem in India’s rural agricultural communities. If authorities could roll out more efficient irrigation, it would effectively save urban residents from running out of water and stave off the crisis for a long while.
Aside from uncontrolled urban sprawl and poor infrastructure that contributed to India’s water crisis in 2019, Chennai’s catchment areas, its rivers and lakes that collect rainwater and feed its reservoirs are not only severely polluted, but it is also shrinking.
Preventing another day zero will depend a lot on how the city will act on these issues.
The Economic Times explains the problem:
“Chennai sits on a low plain on the southeast coast of India, intersected by three main rivers, all heavily polluted, that drain into the Bay of Bengal…when rains fail, the city must rely on huge desalination plants and water piped in from hundreds of kilometers away because most of its rivers and lakes are too polluted. While climate change and extreme weather have played a part, poor planning is the main culprit for Chennai’s water woes. As the city grew, vast areas of the surrounding floodplain and its lakes and ponds disappeared. Between 1893 and 2017, the area of Chennai’s water bodies shrank from 12.6 square kilometers to about 3.2 square kilometers.”
The BBC article “How to stop another ‘Day Zero’” also offers solutions to Chennai’s water problems. These include:
- preserving and preventing urban developments from encroaching on its wetlands,
- implement a plan to restore some of its ecosystems,
- preserve its marshland,
- restore vegetation around the city to absorb rainfall better and replenish its groundwater, and
- clean up and rehabilitate its main rivers.
Another city initiative is to turn Chennai into “the city of 1,000 tanks”, which will restore the city’s ancient systems of interconnected ponds, temple tanks, and small reservoirs that were the source of its water before the city’s rapid growth.
Continuing urbanization, changing weather patterns, and environmental degradation are creating water stress across the world.
Good long-term water planning and infrastructure asset management planning are pathways forward for governments and municipalities to manage these growing issues and implement the needed long-term changes and solutions.