Drought Crisis: The Cities that hit Day Zero


The city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras) is the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu at the very Southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. The population is believed to be around 10 million (1) and the city made recent headlines as it finds itself amid a dire water crisis. 

As The Guardian reports,  the four reservoirs supplying the bulk of the city’s drinking water have completely dried up, leading the Chennai Metro Water to cut the water it provides by about 40%.

According to The Guardian, the reasons for the water shortage are complex: the city experienced massive unplanned urban development almost doubling in size within five years. There is no infrastructure in place to recycle waste water or harvest rain water. 

The city relies on the monsoon and the monsoon is late. Rainfall had already been inadequate for several years leading to groundwater levels plummeting.

A city of 10 million finds itself unprepared for the massive climate change induced alterations in rain patterns. Busy with dealing with a growing population, including according to CNN 820,000 people living in slums, the problem is addressed by transporting water on trucks.

While the middle class still has enough disposable income to cover the price hike in water costs – the poor’s resources are stretched to the limit. A resident of Chennai describes the situation to the Hindu Business Line as follows “I now buy water from private parties,” says Usharani. She pays 20 Indian Rupees for one bucket of water. Her family of four needs more than 10 buckets every other day. “That works out to around 4,000 Rupees a month. That’s about half of my monthly wages, just for buying water.”

Chennai is just one example of the real-life consequences of how overwhelmed cities find themselves reacting to overstretched natural resources. Societies find themselves not able to adapt to changing climate patterns let alone to mitigate further climate change. 

The water crisis of Chennai comes only a year after Cape Town neatly hit Day Zero. Cape Town’s water crisis – being a major international tourist destination -  received global attention.

South Africa’s national government had to help the city by re-allocating large amounts of water from agricultural purposes to the urban residents.(2)

With Day Zero approaching, the city ran a massive campaign to reduce water consumption with methods like "Stop flushing toilets when not necessary, shower for less than two minutes a day or use a wet cloth for a 'wipe-down" (3) to stretch the days until the pipes would lie dry. At last the city received rain and could steadily ease water restrictions. 

While Cape Town avoided the collapse of its water supplies 2018, Indian cities don’t seem that lucky. Entirely unprepared in today’s world already, Chennai’s example raises the question of whether adaptation to a 2 degree Celsius global warming scenario - let alone the 3 degree Celsius the world is currently set to reach – is possible.