Hotels in Chennai are rationing water for guests amid searing heat while companies limit showers as the city of 4.6mn faces its worst shortage in years.
All four reservoirs that supply Chennai, known as the Detroit of south Asia for its flourishing automobile industry, have run dry this summer, largely because of poor monsoon rains last year.
Chennai is one of 21 cities that a government think-tank warned last year could run out of ground water by 2020.
This year’s monsoon is delayed, further compounding problems across a swath of western and central India.
Employees in Chennai-based companies such as Fiat Chrysler TCS, Wipro and Cognizant said they had been asked to cut back on water use in canteens and restrooms.
US-listed Cognizant Technology Solutions (CTS), which employs thousands in the city, said it had cut down on water at its canteen and gym.
“We have also switched to biodegradable plates in all our cafeterias, temporarily closed shower facilities in our gyms, and minimised the washing of utensils in our campuses by our cafeteria vendors,” CTS said in a statement.
Water storage levels in the city’s four major reservoirs were one-hundredth of what they were this time last year - and at a mere 0.2% of capacity, according to state government data.
Chennai is entirely dependent on the northeast monsoon which begins in October.
The last three months of 2018 received lower than average rainfall, with the deficit rising to as much as 80% in the month of December, according to India’s weather office. Ananda, a small hotel in southern Chennai, had a notice at its entrance warning of a water shortage.
“It’s not just us, all the hotels run the risk of shutting down because there’s hardly enough water,” said P Chandrasekhar, a supervisor at the hotel.
State authorities said they had stepped up water supplies to the city each year.
“In 2017, we were supplying 450mn litres of water. Now we are supplying 525mn litres per day,” S P Velumani, the minister for municipal administration, said.
But across town, residents could be seen crowded around water tankers in temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius, holding buckets as media reported scuffles.
The water shortage in Chennai started several weeks ago and the Madras High Court has criticised the Tamil Nadu state government for inaction.
The court accused the government on Tuesday of waiting passively for the arrival of the monsoon instead of proactively handling the water crisis which, it said, did not happen in a day.
Entire families are managing their drinking and cooking needs with two or three pots of water in searing temperatures of more than 40C.
Residents are forced to wait for municipal or private water tankers to bring drinking water, leaving little or nothing for laundry or bathing. The arrival of a tanker prompts a rush of women carrying colourful plastic pots to fill up.
The Chennai Metro has turned off the air conditioning in stations.
Doctors and staff at the small 24-bed, orthopaedic Tosh hospital, said they are “just about managing” with a municipal tanker coming twice a week.
“We have really rationed water use and have enough, for the moment, for the ward toilets and the toilets in OPD (the out-patient department) but it’s becoming alarming,” said Dr Prabhu Manickam, an orthopaedic surgeon at the hospital.
The reasons for the water shortage are complex but experts cite as one reason unplanned urban development that has destroyed the wetlands around the city.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami said on Tuesday residents would have to wait until the monsoon arrived and claimed the water crisis was being exaggerated by the media.
“In case of a water issue somewhere, it should not be blown up to give a false impression that the entire state is reeling from water scarcity,” he said.
In a report released on June 14, government think-tank Niti Aayog said India was facing the worst water crisis in its history.
It predicted that 21 cities would run out of groundwater by 2020 and recommended “urgent and improved” management of water resources.
Even if water were more plentiful, it is estimated only one in five rural homes has a piped water connection.
Soon after being re-elected to office on 23 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he wanted to change this situation.
He promised Indians that his government would aim to provide piped water to all homes by 2023.
The irony of the promise, given the water crisis, has not been lost on Indians.
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