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In Depth: Water Crisis Looming Across Tamil Nadu

'The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water' - Ismail Serageldin

A recent Niti Aayog report states that 24 of India's 29 states will witness a severe water crisis shortly. 21 major cities of the country will soon run out of groundwater. This year, with nearly 50 percent of India grappling with drought-like conditions, the situation has been even grimmer in states that have received rainfall below the long-period average.

The Niti Aayog has developed a Composite Water Management Index, assessing 9 large sectors on 28 different indicators covering various aspects such as groundwater, the restoration of water bodies, policy, and governance. The idea was to understand which states were using various techniques of water management and to what extent they can deal with the water shortage menace.

The biggest cause of worry in India is the agricultural sector - rural areas use 80% of the water supply for this purpose.

Almost 12% of Indians are already living Day Zero, a term invented in Cape Town after they faced a water crisis last year. It refers to the active rationing of water: a time when the water supply is completely cut off and people need to tighten their water consumption as much as possible. Often people have to rely entirely on tankers for water - which in India are typically commercial tankers run for profit, often in connivance with government officials.

Reasons for this crisis include excessive groundwater pumping, inefficient, wasteful or non-existent water management systems, and years of deficient rain exacerbated by global warming.

Indian cities and towns regularly run out water in the summer because they lack the infrastructure to deliver piped water to every home. Most parts of the country depend mainly on the monsoon rain for the water supply. However, due to a weak monsoon for the past two years, 600 million people - a quarter of the country's population - are living under water shortage.

As a result, 70% of affected people have to now rely on various other sources of water which are often contaminated and unsafe. The data points out that the country is facing a severe drought, estimated to result in the loss of 6% of the GDP by 2030, by which year the demand for water is expected to be twice the supply.

India faces worst water crisis: NITI Aayog

The Water Crisis in Tamil Nadu

There are about 17 river basins in Tamil Nadu with Cauvery being the major basin. Water from this basin is shared between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as it flows from Karnataka and then enters the state. 13 other basins are medium, and 3 are minor river basins. At 75 percent dependability, the annual surface water generated in the state is 692.78 TMC (thousand million cubic feet).


Since the state is entirely dependent on rains for recharging its water resources, monsoon failures lead to acute water scarcity and severe droughts. Without any rainfall for the past 200 days, it has become even more crucial that Chennai finally experiences rain.

There are four major reservoirs here - Cholavaram, Redhills, Poondi, and the Chembaraambakkam. Cholavaram has a capacity 1,081 MCFT (million cubic feet) and Redhills has a capacity of 3,300. These are already dry, and Poondi reservoir is at 24 MCFT as against a capacity of 3,231 MCFT. The Chembarambakkam lake with a capacity 3,645 MCFT has a water level of a mere 1 MCFT.

The primary reason for water scarcity is the lack of proper urban development and accountability among various civic authorities. Not to forget that there has been an increase in the population, with no facilities created to meet the growing demand.

There has been an erratic water supply for the past six months. People in Chennai have to wait for Metrotankers for about 3-4 weeks and do not have any idea from where the water will come meanwhile.

This time, the situation is the worst witnessed in the past 30 years. Tankers are even collecting stagnant water from abandoned stone quarrying areas to supply 8.5 lakh households with a Metrowaters connection.

This situation is due to poor planning. In Chennai, there used to be about 150 water bodies. The Yeri Scheme implemented by the government emphasised the conversion of water bodies into residential areas and commercial plots. Even the water canals and supply routes died a slow death under this scheme whose sole stated aim was to accommodate the city's growing population.

The problem was well known, and the administration should have steadily focused on protecting and preserving the remaining rivers which flowed across the city. To make matters worse, another issue which Chennaiites are facing is that the water supply is mixing with sewage water. Many regions of Chennai city such as Mandaveli are receiving sewage water mixed in with treated water.

The cause is the constant leaks at one or other pumping station. If repaired the problem gets solved for a week or two. After that, the whole situation is back to square one. The primary source of water supply is by the Chennai Metrowater and Supply Board. But with no solution in sight, people have had to depend on private tanks to meet the water supply. This is more costly than the public supply. Each family is forced to shell out ₹2,000 to ₹3,000 per month for water. There is an increasing burden on family budgets. After all, not everyone can afford this huge amount month after month.

The biggest issue which highlights the policy paralysis of the city administration is the development of the IT Corridor. Although the infrastructure and space were provided to them, not once did they think about the water supply which would be required to meet the demand. With the IT industry set up, the city will eventually witness a considerable level of migration from other parts of the country due to job opportunities. With 150 mega structures owned by 650 big companies located here, the demand for water was sure to rise.

All such decisions and commercial activities were the final nails in the coffin that has resulted in such an alarming situation in Chennai.


Thoothukkudi lies in the southeastern corner of Tamil Nadu. People here are facing a water crisis of immense proportions. With the temperature soaring, there is an insufficient quantum of water. The water supply required to carry out necessary activities is only available once in 10 or 11 days. Even if people store water in various containers, it becomes contaminated within 4-5 days.

Apart from that, there is a severe problem of industrial water contamination. The presence of Sterlite Copper, owned by the Vedanta Group, has its largest copper smelting plant in the region.

According to research conducted by the Central Ground Water Board, water samples here contained a high level of TDS (Totally Dissolved Solids) and many other heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, chromium, manganese, iron and arsenic beyond the permissible limits. These elements cause damage to the environment. Apart from that, continuous exposure to such water has also resulted in cancer and related diseases among people in the vicinity.

It was this reason that in 2015, the Supreme Court of India slapped a fine of 100 crores. Finally, on 18th February 2019, the plant was closed after an order from the apex court.




The Papanasam dam supplies water to three districts: Tirunelveli, Thoothukkudi, and Virudhunagar. The water in its reservoir has fast started depleting after multiple failed monsoons. The dam has a storage level of 143 feet while it is filled up to only 10 feet as of now. The fall in the water level is due to the failed southwest monsoon and the northeast monsoons.

Even after drawing water from Manimuthur, Tirunelveli's largest dam, it has become challenging to supply water to both the rural areas and the urban areas. Moreover, the distilling process in these dams has not taken place because of which dead fish can be seen floating in them. It is now solely on the Manimuthur dam with a capacity of 5,511 MCFT to meet the drinking water requirement as per the government's drinking water schemes.

Apart from this, the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board has sunk 113 infiltration wells along the 125 km-long watercourses of the Tamirabharani from Papanasam to Punnaikaayal, to provide a supply of around 12 crore litres of water every day from the once-perennial river to over 28.5 lakh people through 27 combined drinking water schemes.

The primary reason for depleting water in the Tamirabharani river is the use of water by large industries like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and many others located in the exclusive economic zone of the State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu. According to an RTI filed by Chennai-based activist Ramiah Ariya from Arappor Iyakkam, 27 companies receive 0.5 million gallons of water per day.




Karur is a district with 8 blocks, 157 villages and 2,457 habitations which is also facing acute water scarcity. It is known for its home textiles: bed linen, kitchen linen, toilet linen, table linen and wall hangings. The town exports textiles worth about Rs.6,000 crore a year.

There has hardly been any rain during the time of the northeast or southwest monsoon season. The pre-monsoon generally gives an average rainfall that ensures the filling up of all the tanks in the district, but at present its 17 major tanks and 14 minor tanks are very dry.

The failed monsoon has prevented farmers from cultivating an ample amount of agricultural produce in order to minimise their risks. Along with this, there is another widespread problem prevalent in the region: water contamination due to the existing dye industries that discharge about 14,610 kilolitres per day of treated effluent into the river. The groundwater quality has deteriorated downstream from these factories due to continuous discharge of effluent.

The waters of the river Bhavani cannot be used anymore due to the indiscriminate release of colourless dye and coloured dye during the day and night respectively. Generally, rivers are expected to flow, but these rivers are now still and do not flow as a thick layer of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) has covered them. This development has made it difficult to pump the water to generate hydroelectricity.

Traditional cultivators grew Korai grass, which is principally used to make mats. Increasing water scarcity has become a roadblock in growing this grass. The development has put the cottage industry under threat as well as the livelihoods of those who depend on it.

The final reason for the water scarcity is the humongous amount of water pumped out from these sources for the paper industries that operate in these regions. Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Limited are among those who are closing down their operations due to the scarcity.

Because of these issues, Karur had decided to press NOTA in the general elections 2019. The Karur Mavatta Nilathadi Neer Padukappu Sayakalival Pathikapetta Vivasayikal Sangam, formed in 2003 by those affected by the dyeing and bleaching industry in Karur, spearheaded this protest.




A lack of rainfall combined with depleting water tables is what the locals of Dharmapuri are busy facing this year. The region witnessed a failed northeast monsoon with a 50% deficient rainfall. It broke the backbone of the agriculture sector, which depends on seasonal rainfall for irrigation purposes. It has forced many farmers to abandon the process of reviving their crops.

With hardly any water to drink for themselves, they are forced to give less water to their cattle. Not much development has taken place despite repeated protests. Although the water is supplied once in a few days, it is not in a fit state to drink: larvae can be seen floating in it.

Cauvery water and Hogenakkal water are the major sources of water supply in this district. However, with the water dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, much water is not released. Due to a lack of rainfall, the level of Cauvery waters has also gone down. Karnataka released only 1.16 TMCFT in the first ten days of June although it was ordered to release 9.19 TMCFT to Tamil Nadu by the Cauvery Water Management Authority.

Water contamination is not new in the state, nor in this region. Fluoride has contaminated the water here. Fluoride is a toxin, which if consumed daily can harm the human body in various ways such as crippling skeletal fluorosis after a certain age.

The fluoride content of the water is between 1.8 and 2 ml/litre, as against India's permissible limit of 1.5 ml/liter. Unfortunately, the residents are forced to consume it for drinking and other purposes.

The whole region is known as the Flouride Belt of Tamil Nadu. Dharmapuri is the fluoride capital of the state with 141 habitations. With the Cauvery flowing through this region, people are still dependent on groundwater or the community borewells. It is an irony because the river water does not reach the villages. Four-fifths of the rural population is cut off from the piped drinking water network.



These are insights from a few districts in various parts of the state. Evidently these developments did not happen in a fortnight. It has been taking place for decades, but no one paid heed as it was not affecting them much. Now when the whole problem is bulging out with such a huge force, it is making the people realise their mistakes.

Finally all the people have started working on the conservation of water for the future. There have been various small but useful steps taken by people, which are bringing a change. In some districts of Tamil Nadu, watershed management intervention programs have been set up to improve water efficiency. Not only that, it will help recharge groundwater and provide ecosystem services.

Also, a foundation called the TAKE Solution in collaboration with the Environmentalist Foundation India has started many awareness programs regarding these issues. Many activities such as lake cleanups, plantation, and maintenance have been carried out. This way, people are being involved at the grassroots level.

Similarly, rainwater harvesting has been put to use in parts of Chennai. One such area is Sabari Terrace. Located on the Old Mahabalipuram Road, this apartment complex had collected 30,000 litres of rainwater in an hour. The water is used for three months in a year.

The administration is also now moving towards practising the old methods used in earlier times. One such is known as the 'kudimaramath' scheme, an ancient method of constructing and maintaining waterbodies by the local community. Kudimaramath is considered as a long-term drought-proofing scheme in the region.

People should also be using recycled water for other purposes such as gardening; in this way much water can be saved. However, people in the region hesitate to use treated sewage water. The attitude of the people needs to change. It is very crucial when such a situation is looming across the country.

Last but not least, the water crisis which confronts Tamil Nadu does not pertain to a particular village, town, or nation of the world. It is a situation we all might have to face due to our careless and uncaring attitude towards nature. We all should join hands and do our bit to save water for ourselves and for the next generation as well. As a wise one said, "All the water that will ever be, is now."






















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