According to NITI Aayog, a government-affiliated think-tank, India is experiencing one of the worst water crises in history. The June report warned that households, farmers and industry are increasingly threatened by water shortages. It is estimated that out of India’s 1.3 billion population, 163 million people – or one in ten – do not currently have access to clean water in their home.
In Chennai – a coastal city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu – the state government is struggling to meet demand for clean water from the city’s eight million residents. Chennai needs more than 800 million litres of water a day to meet demand, yet the government is currently only able to supply 675 million litres. The residents of Chennai rely on more than 4,000 private water tankers to meet their needs. Those needs went unfilled earlier in 2018, when the drivers of those tankers went on strike.
In 2014, the Tamil Nadu Government required that private tanker firms first obtain a commercial licence before they extract groundwater for resale. In response to the water supply gap that has emerged in Chennai, however, many private tanker firms have ignored this regulation and continued to resell extracted groundwater to the public. Earlier in 2018, 75 water-bottling firms petitioned the state government to reverse the 2014 requirement. The restrictions were reaffirmed by the Madras High Court in October 2018, with the court citing concerns about rural water supplies and the need to eliminate corruption among private water tankers.
In response to the court’s ruling restricting access to groundwater, Chennai’s water crisis elevated when private-sector water tank drivers went on strike for three days in mid-October. With tankers supplying an estimated 200 million litres of water to Chennai per day, the strike affected thousands of businesses and households that rely on the private source of water. It ended when the government promised to look into the demands of the tanker owners.
Some neighbourhoods in Chennai do not have access to government water pipelines. In some areas, private water tankers extract water from rural areas and sell the water to residents, often at 50 times the resource’s cost. While the private firms supplying this water argue that they are providing a crucial public service, it is problematic for several reasons. Tankers control who has access to water, how much water they receive, and the price that they pay. As tankers predominantly extract groundwater from rural areas they could also deprive those residents of sufficient water.
If it does not rain soon in the catchment areas of the Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts, the four reservoirs that supply Chennai with water are at risk of becoming dry. The Cholavaram and Chembarambakkam reservoirs are almost empty, with each holding two and six per cent of their total storage, respectively. Other sources including the Veeranam Lake, agricultural wells and desalination plants will be able to supply Chennai with water for another two months, but the city is at risk of tensions increasing if the current dry spell continues.
Residents are encouraged to dig backyard bore wells and make better use of private wells, to help Chennai avoid a Day Zero-like scenario. The city must diversify its water supply with sources such as desalination and develop better rainwater storage facilities. The state and municipal governments must act to ensure access to water; relying heavily on private water tankers to meet this need is not likely to ensure that all residents have access to clean water.