Aayush Ashok Kothari

June 29, 2019 · 7 min read •
The author is a Law Student

Chennai, India’s sixth largest city, has been hit by one of the worst water crisis witnessed by the country. This made headlines on 21st June 2019, when the New York Times posted an image captured by the satellite showing a before and after image of the Puzhal Lake, which supplies water to approximately 5 million people. It is evident that the lake has dried up due to manifold reasons like climate change and turbulent governance and so on.

Chennai mainly gets its water from the following four reservoirs viz. Poondi Lake, Cholavaram Lake, Puzhal Lake and Chembarambakkam Lake. However, these lakes now contain only one tenth of their total capacity which will further leave the inhabitants parched. One of the time lapse videos of the Puzhal lake getting dried will make you rooted to the spot. This has led to closure of malls and restaurants. Even various offices have asked their employees to work from home due to non-availability of water for domestic use. Severity of the situation can be judged from an incident that proved to be fatal for a 32-year old man, who got into a scuffle with his neighbor over storing large quantities of water.

In 2003, a momentous ordinance was passed in Chennai which made it mandatory for all the buildings to make provision for rainwater harvesting (RWH) structures, in order to use it during the times of distress. But surprisingly, in 2015, Mr. Sekhar Raghavan, who founded the NGO, Rain Centre, conducted a rainwater harvesting survey in Chennai on behalf of the government. It was revealed that the government was the worst violator of the law laid down. Mr. Raghavan added “We found that most police stations, chief and assistant engineer’s standalone offices, municipality buildings and town Panchayats got rainwater harvesting methods entirely wrong“.  It is due to this failure of the government amid intense heatwave that has led to the unfortunate situation in Chennai.


The authorities in the city have been blamed for their complacency in dealing with one of the basic resource of human life. Not only the residents, but also the Madras High Court came down heavily on the officials for their inaction. However, there cannot be an immediate direct cause for the water crisis, it is as a result of a prolonged unplanned urban development without any checks and balances in place.

Consequently, Chennai maybe face to face with “Day Zero”. On the Day Zero, the water is cut from the residential taps and commercial use. It is an active water rationing and water will only be supplied to the essential areas. There are distribution areas from which the inhabitants must collect water.

Similar situation was faced by Cape Town, South Africa last year when they had declared countdown till “Day Zero” which was fortunately averted. In January 2018, the authorities in Cape Town announced that the city was just three months away from running out of the consumable water. It is commendable how Capetonians dodged the situation tactfully. Each week, the city used to update its progress in avoiding Day Zero. Since the authorities could not find water resources overnight, they resorted to strictly cutting down on water usage. No person was allowed more than 2 minutes of shower. It not only affected the lives of the people, but also the economy took a hit. There was a negative impact on the tourism which had cascading effect on the day to day lives of the residents. It also depletes the city’s confidence. Numerous people lost their jobs since the employers were not in a position to afford the employment.

Fortunately, the need for an imminent day zero may be avoided with the onslaught of monsoon, as reported by the Meteorological department. It also reported that the south west monsoon shall continue at least for the next three days until 29th June 2019. Since, the Western Ghats block the nimbus clouds and the South West monsoon may not be enough to eradicate the water crisis, this is deemed to be a temporary relief for the residents.


Government in Chennai has been prompt in taking actions. Tamil Nadu even accepted an aid of twenty lakhs litres of water from the neighbouring state Kerala. Government has also allocated 200 crores rupees for the supply of the drinking water, and it also seeks to transfer 10 million litres of water from Jolarpettai in Vellore district by rail wagons.

Warning for other cities:

In the Composite Water Management Index – June 2018, a report by NITI Aayog, the government think tank, stated that India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are under threat. It warned that 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by next year, including the capital New Delhi and the information technology hub of Bengaluru. Currently, 600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. Other states may draw inspiration from Andhra Pradesh,  which has its own real-time governance through an online dashboard, Andhra Pradesh has established a comprehensive information portal for water resources in the state. The dashboard allows real-time monitoring of rainfall, groundwater, soil moisture, tanks, check dams, and other water indicators. This allows the residents to know where they stand and also to maintain some sense of transparency.

However, it’s about time that we brace ourselves for the worst scenario. In order to do some damage control, not only the government but all individuals are morally bound to save water. This may equip us to face the inevitable situation in a better and civilized manner.

Searching for alternate methods:

India cannot completely rely upon the ground water for consumption, much water has flown under the bridge and it is high time that we start using desalination and rainwater harvesting on an equal footing with traditional ways. Desalination has proven as one of the most energy efficient ways to tackle water scarcity. On Thursday, 27 June 2019, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Mr. K Palaniswami has laid down the foundation stone of the third desalination plant in Nemmeli.


There is a silver lining attached to the whole water crisis. It has led to several innovations and has changed people’s attitude towards saving water. Since we waste around 14 million litres of water only by taking a sip or two and leaving the rest, a 15-year old resident of Bangalore has encouraged restaurants in the city to serve only half a glass of water to prevent wastage.

In furtherance to this, the government and residents shall undertake to educate the people and develop a positive approach and new mindset towards saving water. It is not only during the times of agony that one shall be conservative in their use.

image credit: Pixabay

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