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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Running on empty

Published by Tortoise (25th July, 2019)

Prabu Kasinathan was leaning over a concrete balustrade, gazing at the vastness of Puzhal Lake spread out below in the fierce summer sun. He was waiting for his pregnant wife to finish a medical appointment nearby, he said, adding that they’d been here before. ‘It was only ten months ago but it looked very different. Last year there were people fishing and boats with nets on the water. My wife wanted to touch the water, but I didn’t want her to go down in case she slipped and fell.’

Now they would have to walk a long way to touch water. For this giant reservoir, built by the British in the nineteenth century and later expanded to provide drinking water for millions of citizens in fast-growing Chennai, is officially empty. I could see a sliver of water in the distance to one side, but the rest of this huge lake, spread over 4,500 acres, had turned into a drab brown crater.

Puzhal is now surrounded by Chennai’s northern suburbs. As its dry bed hardens, local people look to the skies and pray for salvation from the autumn monsoon. This place demonstrates the depth of the water crisis that has struck this hot, humid, sprawling metropolis near the tip of India in Tamil Nadu. As one of the sub-continent’s largest cities runs dry there have been school closures, business shutdowns, surging food prices and even deadly fighting over supplies.

This is bad news for Chennai. But the bigger question is whether the city is experiencing a foretaste of our planet’s future as populations rise, urban areas burst through their natural boundaries and climate changes. Last year I saw the same issues playing out in Cape Town, Africa’s tenth biggest city, as it struggled to keep taps flowing for four million residents living at the fertile centre of South Africa’s agriculture. Now there are fears many more Indian cities face similar threats. There are concerns over shrinking reservoirs from Europe to Africa and urban populations booming in some of the poorest parts of the planet. Some analysts talk of water becoming a trigger for wars, while the United Nations warns that water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030.

So is Chennai a portent of the future or just the unfortunate victim of municipal mismanagement? Certainly Puzhal – the biggest of two rain-fed reservoirs supplying this city of eight million people – is ‘bone-dry’, as confirmed by a water board official. And I saw the same parched scenes at the other one, Chembarambakkam Lake, where cattle and sheep strolled along baked earth and weeds grew on the dusty bed. A red-tiled intake tower complex there stood marooned like some strange experimental sculpture.

Prabu, a farmer, has felt the full force of this crisis. Last year he cultivated ten acres of rice seed at his village, which is 30 miles from Puzhal and where local lakes have also shrivelled. This year he has been able to grow just two acres of jasmine and watermelon, so he expects his earnings to fall four-fifths to 100,000 rupees (£1,247). ‘All the vegetables have died and we’re spending more on fertiliser,’ he said. ‘If you have enough water as a farmer then you are happy, but without water there are only big problems.’

But it’s not just farmers suffering. The failure of last year’s monsoon was followed by summer heatwaves that took temperatures above 50 degrees C in parts of the country, devastating many rural communities. One woman I met in a Chennai informal settlement told me how she went to work washing dishes in a restaurant after her son, the family’s sole earner, crashed his three-wheel auto taxi and injured his leg. ‘Three days ago they told me they had no water so I could not work any more,’ said Vijyea, 50. ‘We have no money now so it is very difficult for us.’ Another woman told me that prices of vegetables such as tomatoes had quadrupled.

Many schools shut down, although the state government persuaded most to re-open with promises to supply water. Some of the technology companies that have sprung up in Chennai sent staff home to work. In response, city officials hired fleets of tankers to import supplies, with free deliveries every couple of days for residents. The first 50-wagon train filled with water drawn from a dam 225 miles away rolled into town a couple of days before I left Chennai, yet people still complained of soaring prices. Fights have broken out in water queues, leading to at least one death.

There is dark muttering about a water mafia linked to politicians that is profiteering from the crisis. In rural areas outside the city there have been nasty confrontations over private tankers draining fast-depleting wells; residents of one village smashed a truck’s windscreen and deflated its tyres. Days later there were mass protests. More recently, furious villagers who complained that underground water levels had plunged from 25 feet to 50 feet seized tankers that they found sucking up water from nearby boreholes, leading to threats of an indefinite strike by the local Lorry Owners Association. ‘If we continue to face public obstruction, we will drop this entire operation and move to transporting other items in our lorries,’ one official said. ‘Then who will suffer?’

These conflicts show the tensions that can erupt over such a precious resource, especially in a hot, humid environment. The owner of one water lorry, whose number I dialled at random after seeing it driving around Chennai, told me he was so fed up he wanted to sell his vehicle. ‘This used to be a very good business with easy profit but I am very unhappy now,’ he said. This driver explained how he used to make up to 10 trips a day, each one clearing 550 rupees (£6.37) profit and collecting supplies from holes on the edge of town. Now he had to drive 40 miles to find water, faced long queues to fill up and was then limited to two trips a day -resulting in a maximum take home pay of 1500 rupees (£17.40) a day. ‘It’s a bad business now, very bad.’

There are few winners in this crisis. At Fortis Malar Hospital, one of India’s leading heart transplant centres, they use 152,000 litres a day and have seen water prices double. ‘This is a big challenge,’ said Senthil Kumar, its head of administration. ‘There is no water anywhere in Chennai. I got three messages this morning from my friends asking if I knew where to find any.’

The hospital, sitting by the shrunken Adyar River that originates 25 miles away at Chembarambakkam, has reduced water pressure in some patient zones and urged everyone to cut down on usage. ‘This crisis is like a wake-up call for the city,’ said Dr Kumar. ‘We get huge rains here – in 2015 we were flooded but we did not save the waters and this is why the problems are here now.’

As I drove through the city’s Ambattur district to Puzhal Lake it was easy to spot one cause of these problems: new blocks of flats and offices on the crowded road, along with timber yards advertising floors and doors. ‘Ten years ago this was all forest and it was a very pleasant area,’ my driver said. It’s now full to bursting.

Chennai’s population has more than doubled this century thanks to an influx of technology firms and car manufacturers. In the process it has become one of the most tightly-packed cities on Earth – but this is partly because of 150,000 illegal structures, according to city authorities, while at least 300 tanks, canals and lakes have disappeared under concrete developments and precious wetlands have been destroyed.

‘This problem is man-made,’ said Jayaram Venkatesan, the 38-year-old convenor of Arappor Iyakkam, an anti-corruption watchdog. He told me he had never seen anything like these water shortages, and said poor planning was to blame for them and more besides: over-development, lakes poisoned by sewage, water structures neglected, rivers allowed to silt up and rubbish dumped on wetlands. ‘Nature replies to such things with floods in hard rains and a water crisis in times of drought,’ he said.

India has been reeling from its worst drought for decades, with almost half its 1.3 billion people facing shortages blamed on failing monsoons and intensified by savage heatwaves. Much of the water that supports life across the subcontinent comes from its 30 million wells and boreholes, yet this groundwater is being drained at unsustainable rates.

Farmers near Chembarambakkam said they used to get water from shallow wells just below the earth’s surface but now they need costly rigs to drill down up to 100 foot. Elsewhere, many have shifted from growing food to the more lucrative sale of water. Niti Aayog, a prominent think tank, warned recently that Chennai is one of 21 Indian cities that will run out of water by next year – and that within a decade close to half India’s population will struggle to access drinking supplies because of contaminated supplies and ‘extreme water stress.’

These difficulties are compounded by climate change, and the increasingly erratic weather patterns it is believed to cause. The south-west monsoon, which drenches India each summer and supplies 70 per cent of its water, arrived ten days late this year and dumped almost a third less rain than usual for the month of June. Chennai relies mostly on the north-east monsoon season from October to January, which four years ago led to flooding with the region’s heaviest one-day downpour in a century: almost 20 inches fell in 24 hours. Experts believe the rains may become shorter but more intense as maximum temperatures rise. Yet last year’s monsoon failed, delivering less than half the normal rainfall, and since then the city has endured its worst dry spell in 15 years, lasting almost 200 days.

But India is not a country lacking water.  This is a nation with huge rivers fed by the Himalayan snows and some of the world’s biggest freshwater stocks. Even last year Chennai received 30 inches of rain – more than lands on London in a typical year.

‘Climate change is certainly an issue but we cannot blame it for everything,’ said Professor Pramod Aggarwal, one of India’s top agricultural scientists and a lead author on the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. ‘Overall India is predicted to have more rainfall but also more floods and more droughts. The lesson of Chennai is that we must pay more attention to our water reserves.’

Ironically, this bustling city lies in a region that implemented innovative water harvesting techniques under the mighty Chola empire more than a millennium ago. After the dynasty’s greatest ruler King Rajaraja returned from invading Sri Lanka in 993 he instigated a survey of his lands and oversaw construction of a network of 5,000 lakes, reservoirs and canals, even setting up a water management board to oversee a complex system of cascading water tanks used to irrigate fields. In contrast with today’s shortages, historians say there was no drought recorded during the king’s 29-year rule.

One man who has spent much of his life campaigning for smarter conservation tactics is Sekhar Raghavan, 72, director of the non-profit Rain Centre. We met in his office, which sits inside a building designed to demonstrate how to capture rain and store ‘grey’ water with a system of gutters, pipes, wells and sumps. When I use the word ‘reservoir’, he gently reprimands me. ‘Reservoir is a bad word, created by the British. It says you have the right to take the water from farmers, denying them their rights, and that urban need is more important than rural need.’

A physicist by training, this affable campaigner – nicknamed ‘The Rain Man’ – saw many years ago that his expanding home city was allowing much of its rainwater to fall on concrete and then run off into the sea. The water was wasted and the aquifers shrank. Raghavan started going door-to-door around his neighbourhood in largely-failed efforts to persuade residents to harvest rainwater or let it percolate into the soil, comparing the eco-system to a bank account. ‘If you save the rain, you can withdraw it even in a drought,’ he told me. ‘I would tell people to let water flow into the soil, but they did not seem to relate ground water to rain water. We have become better educated but have lost much of our common sense.’

Shortly after the turn of the century he found an unlikely ally: J Jayalalitha, the long-serving and controversial chief minister of Tamil Nadu. When an election campaign coincided with shortages, this  flamboyant former film star began promoting water harvesting, and in 2002 she oversaw legislation to make it mandatory for government and residential buildings in the city to collect rain. Following a strong start, however, the new rules were largely forgotten. Floods replenished aquifers and political attention shifted to other issues. Research shows that despite near-total compliance on paper, fewer than half the city’s buildings correctly harvest water.

Jayalalitha’s successor has accused the media of ‘creating an illusion’ of shortages, but they are all too real. Chennai has in fact built two desalination plants, with the foundation stone for a third laid last month, which between them will be able treat 150 million litres per day. That will serve as a sticking plaster, but with rapid urbanisation and accelerating climate change desalination is no long-term solution.

Will other countries pay attention to what is happening in Chennai? As Raghavan points out, wherever demand keeps on increasing while supply remains the same there will be water stress, and it will be especially acute in growing cities. ‘Unless we capture the rain, we will run out of water,’ he says. ‘So we must harvest every drop.’ Yet he is optimistic the tide may be turning in his favour precisely because of the crisis in his home city, which has mobilised civil society and may even stir central government to action. ‘There has suddenly been a tremendous change of mindset because people have seen such scarcity. We have to change our habits now.’

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