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  • A man uses a hand-pump to fill up a container with drinking water as others wait in a queue on a street in Chennai, India, June 17, 2019.

    A man uses a hand-pump to fill up a container with drinking water as others wait in a queue on a street in Chennai, India, June 17, 2019. | Photo: Reuters

Published 24 June 2019

The hunt for water in south India's main city has become an increasingly desperate obsession for its 10 million residents after months with virtually no rain.

All four reservoirs that supply the Indian city of Chennai, known as the Detroit of South Asia for its automobile industry, have run dry this summer, largely because of poor monsoon rains last year.

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The bustling capital of the southern Tamil Nadu state usually receives 825 million liters of water a day, but authorities are currently only able to supply 60 percent of that. With temperatures regularly hitting 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), reservoirs have run dry and other water sources are dwindling each day for the approximate 10 million residents. 

Chennai is one of 21 cities that, a government think-tank warned last year, could run out of groundwater by 2020. This year’s monsoon is delayed, further compounding problems across a swath of western and central India.

A rainstorm on Thursday night, the first for about six months, brought people out onto the streets to celebrate but provided only temporary relief.

"We don't sleep at night because we worry that this well will run out," said Srinivasan V., a 39-year-old electrician who starts queueing for water before dawn in his home district near Chennai airport.

The 70 families who use the well are allowed three 25-liter pots each day. Most pay high prices to private companies to get the extra water they need to survive. Local officials organize a lottery to determine who gets to the front of the queue. The lucky first-comers get clear, fresh water. Those at the end get an earth-colored liquid.

Srinivasan said he waits about five hours each day in water queues and spends around 2,000 rupees (US$ 28) a month on bottled water or paying for a tanker truck to deliver water.

It is a big chunk of his 15,000-rupee monthly salary. "I have loans, including for the house, and I can't repay them now," he said.

The desperation has spilled over into clashes in Chennai. One woman who was involved in a water dispute with neighbors was stabbed in the neck. In another incident in the Tamil Nadu city, Thanjavur, an activist was beaten to death by a neighboring family after he accused them of hoarding water.

Many in Chennai do not have the money to pay for extra supplies, and arguments in queues for free water often turn violent.

The scarcity has affected all facets of life in Chennai, as some restaurants now even serve meals in banana leaves so that they do not have to wash plates. Others have stopped serving lunch altogether to save the precious liquid.

Families have had to reorganize daily life, setting up schedules for showers and devoting up to six hours a day to line up for water - three in the morning, three in the afternoon. Most of those queuing are women, including housewife Nagammal Mani, who said looking for water was like a full-time job. "You need one person at home just to find and fill up the water while the other person goes to work," she added.

Chennai gets most of its water from four lakes around the city. But it had a poor monsoon last year and levels have not recovered since. The bones of dead fish now lie on the cracked bottoms of the lakes.

While weak rainfall is a key cause of Chennai's crisis, experts say India's poor record at collecting water does not help, particularly as the country of 1.3 billion people becomes increasingly urbanized.

The drought is seen as a symbol of the growing threat faced in many of India's highly vulnerable states, which have been hit by longer periods each year of sweltering heat that has devastated food production. Hundreds of villages have already emptied in the summer heat this year because their wells have run dry.

Pradeep John, a local weather expert known online as "Tamil Nadu Weatherman," said if families in the area had spent their money on rain-collection equipment instead of truckloads of water they would be "self-sufficient" now. "We've got almost 1,300-1,400 millimeters of rainfall every year. So that is a very significant amount of rainfall," he told AFP.

"So we have to find out where the problem lies, where the problem of urbanization lies - whether we are encroaching into the (rain) catchment areas - improve these catchment areas, and then find a long-term solution." The expert warned there is no immediate hope for rains to end the crisis, with the monsoon not expected before October.

"If the water doesn't come, people will be shedding blood instead of tears," stated housewife Parvathy Ramesh, 34, as she endured her daily queue in Chennai's stifling heat.

India’s water demand is projected to be double its supply by 2030, the National Institute for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog said in a report last year.

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