Chennai water crisis: A story that should worry you


  • Storage in four main water reservoirs of Chennai is at less than 1%.
  • Tamil Nadu has a 41% rainfall deficit this year till mid-June.
  • Chennai has lost 33% wetland areas in last decade to development projects.

The water is almost gone.

Chennai, one of India’s largest cities is practically have gone dry with the Central Water Commission reporting a rainfall deficit of 41% in Tamil Nadu till mid-june this year.

More than half of Chennai’s population today is dependent on water tankers and curtailed municipal supply for daily requirement of drinking water. Water for sanitation and other use is scarce.

Bottled water price is reported to have gone up four times while packaged water can only be sustained by wealthier middle-class. City is filled with ‘save water’ stickers and banners. Many companies have asked employees to work from home. Several restaurants have shut down operations.

Image: AP Photos // Residents stand in queues to fill vessels filled with drinking water from a water tanker in Chennai, capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

How did Chennai lose its water?

Chennai used to be water-surplus metropolitan cities of India till a couple of decades ago.

With the age-old water conservation tradition of Tamil Nadu, Chennai had nearly two dozen water bodies including three rivers ( i.e. the Cooum, the Adyar, and the Kosasthalaiyar ) and a British period Buckingham canal. Today, it is reduced to less than half a dozen.

Chennai has lost large amount of areas earlier covered by water bodies to development projects and illegal encroachments over decades.

Image: PTI // Poondi reservoir, one of the major water sources to residents of Chennai has gone bone dry due to acute water shortage prevailing in city.

“Chennai has lost 33 per cent of its wetlands in the last one decade. During the same period, Chennai lost 24 per cent agricultural land, crucial for improving groundwater table.”, Found as per the study by the Anna University.

The Centre for Climate Change that conducted the study criticize road construction – highways and flyovers, airports and high-rises for depleting water resources in Chennai. These development projects were undertaken on reclaimed water bodies are largely to blame.

Reservoirs running on empty

All the four reservoirs in Chennai — Chembarambakkam, Poondi, Red Hills and Cholavaram — that supply drinking water to Chennai have dipped far below the zero level and today hold not even 1% of their capacity.

“Chennai is now critically dependent on its three mega water desalination plants with a combined capacity of 180 mld, and the units are working overtime to remain at least 80-90% efficient. The New Veeranam pipeline brings 90 mld water from a 1,100-yearold Chola-era 235 km away. Water stagnating for months in huge abandoned stone quarries is being pumped out to fill tanks and tankers for about 5% of the city’s 8.5 lakh households that have Metrowater connections.” – Source: The Economic Times

Image: Copernicus Sentinel-2 Satellite via Maxar Technologies // Lake Puzhal supplies water to about 4.6 million people in Chennai, India.

Satellite photographs reveal the stark shrinking of one of the main rain-fed reservoirs that serves Chennai, one of the biggest cities in India.

In second image taken by satellite on June 2019, the city’s largest reservoir, Lake Puzhal, area covered by water has been to small grey fraction of its former self a year before (i.e. June 2018).

One of the city’s other important reservoirs, the smaller Chembarambakkam Lake, is also running dry.

Chennai, a city on the Indian Ocean coast, should be in the throes of the monsoon by now. But the rains are late across India. And Chennai has received almost no rain it should have seen by now.

Graphics: News18 Creative // Data as of 21 June, 2019

Call for Action

The Chennai water crisis isn’t an isolated case. Niti Aayog expects 21 cities, including Delhi and Bengaluru, to run out of groundwater by 2020. The Chennai’s water crisis bares a critical challenge for the new Jal Shakti ministry. In the past five years, Chennai’s water supply has consistently fallen short of the city’s requirement.

Read: Mumbai Struggles to Clean Up Its Most Polluted Mithi River

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