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Understanding Chennai's Water Crisis - What lies ahead

July 10, 2019 2 Comments

Understanding Chennai's Water Crisis - What lies ahead

India is facing one of its most serious water crises ever. After two consecutive years of weak monsoons, 330 million people — a quarter of the country’s population, are affected by a severe drought. Nearly 50 per cent of India grappling with drought-like conditions, the situation has been particularly grim this year in Western and Southern states that received below average rainfall.  

Chennai, today, is fighting one of its worst water crises in 75 years. It is a rain shadow area, which means, the retreating monsoons - The northeast monsoon (NEM) season of October to December is the chief rainy season for this subdivision. This season, however, the NEM missed this part of the Earth in November-December 2018 thus causing severe drought-like conditions, increasing water use and misuse by the coastal metropolis.

Let us walk down, following breadcrumbs to understand how Chennai ended up where it is today.

TOPOGRAPHY - Understanding the natural factors

Chennai, though prone to flooding due to its topography with a mean elevation of only 6 metres above sea level — is blessed with a natural water regulation system: with the Kosasthalaiyar River in the north, the Cooum River running through the centre and the Adyar River through the south of the city. All these are seasonal rivers and must ideally serve the city to never going dry. There’s the Buckingham Canal too! Constructed as a navigation waterway—it was wistfully referred to as the Venice of Madras. The Canal has reduced from its original width of 100mts to 25mts now and all these water bodies have almost disappeared. That's not all, Chennai and its two neighbouring districts – Kanchipuram and Tiruvallur – together used to be called ‘Yeri (lake) districts’. According to The Times of India: They had more than 6,000 lakes, ponds and reservoirs that minimised run-off loss of rainwater and kept replenishing the groundwater table throughout the year. 

Moreover, situated in the North and South of the city, respectively, are The Ennore Creek and The Pallikaranai Marshlands. Marshlands are hotspots that give birth to and shelter unique ecosystems. Thus, for instance, the large-scale drainage of marshlands and the exploitation of groundwater have given rise on occasion to substantial changes in groundwater flow and in the existing wetlands. Up until recently, the marshlands or wetlands were considered unproductive land for agricultural purposes and frequently unhealthy. For this reason, almost all governments offered incentives for them to be drained and converted into arable land. In recent decades, however, the particular ecological importance of marshlands or wetlands has been proved. Moreover, they are considerably sensitive to different anthropogenic actions. Wetlands usually exist as a result of the combined action of ground and surface water. 

From about 8000 hectares of the Pallikaranai Marshland that originally existed, only 500 Hectares remain. The rest is now known as the IT corridor—The area, being a marshland, naturally, got flooded in the 2015 floods. Clearly, to respect the natural ecosystem demands emphasis on. 

The Ennore Creek is itself a very important ecosystem. Many livelihoods depended on the creek. Mindless expansion has robbed many villages of their occupations (like fishing). Waste from the thermal power plants thrown into the water proved fatal to all the species: birds, fish and humans alike.

One year timelapse of chennai's water reservoirs

The challenge here is two-pronged. On one hand, millions live within a biomass-based subsistence economy at the margins of survival which means that the environment is their only natural asset. But a degraded environment means stress on land, water and forest resources for survival. It means increasing destitution and poverty.

On the other hand, rapid industrialisation is throwing up new problems: growing toxification and a costly disease burden. The answers—says Centre for Science and Environment — will be in reinventing the growth model of the Western world for ourselves so that we can leapfrog technology choices and find new ways of building wealth that will not cost us the earth.  

This is a challenge of balance.

According to the Economic Times: Chennai city alone has lost nearly 150 water bodies. 
Canals and supply routes have all disappeared while successive governments promoted housing projects called ‘Yeri schemes’ to convert water bodies into residential plots and apartments to house the city’s burgeoning population. From about 39 lakh according to the 1991 census, the extended areas of Chennai today hold nearly 70 lakh people.


There is a clear disconnect between water, society and economy. Currently, we are interested in laying large networks, constructing huge storage dams, fetching water from 150 kilometres and above, which involves a huge carbon footprint.

We are valuing land more than water, neglecting our local water bodies, which have either gone dry or encroached. 

Map showing comparisons of Indian states' water resource management

“How will this growing city, geographically and demographically — provide long-term, uninterrupted, sustainable access to water for all? Claims and counter-claims on the question of water security must go beyond techno-bureaucratic interventions.” This statement, as put down by Avilash Roul — principal scientist at the Indo-German Centre for Sustainability, IIT-Madras, provides as a good thought director. 


If one goes on a lookout, he will come to an understanding that the lack of knowledge and awareness of the plight we live in today — the day-to-day decisions, often our votes — are all major contributors to what our “now” is. To keep oneself well informed is a plea we can’t emphasize enough on. The scenario today demands using knowledge and education to bring about change. The aim is to raise these concerns. As we participate in seeking answers and more importantly in pushing for answers, we encourage transforming these into practice. 

As the Native American Proverb goes: "We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children." Here’s hoping that the Earth of the Future will be handed over better to those generations that will follow us.

This article is contributed by Prachi Pearl Baptist, a student of National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai.

2 Responses

Lisha Dilip
Lisha Dilip

July 26, 2019

Hope this becomes an eye opener to everyone out there who still are arrogant enough to neglect the cry from nature.

Rajesh Baptist
Rajesh Baptist

July 18, 2019

Excellent work. God bless

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