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Chennai’s daily water requirement is 1,300 mld (million litres per day). Over the last few weeks, the Chennai Metro Water has been able to provide less than 525 mld. Even under normal circumstances, the Chennai Metro Water could afford to supply only 830 mld, and the rest would be drawn through other sources – mostly private.

There has been a rainfall deficit of 99% in Tamil Nadu till June 19 of this year. All of its four major reservoirs – Poondi, Cholavaram, Sengundram and Chembarambakkam – have dried up. During this time last year, the reservoirs held 85 billion litres of water. To make matters worse, it is expected that there will be an inflow of only 2 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) from the Krishna river this year, as opposed to 12 TMC in 2018.

All of the aforementioned factors have led to Chennai facing its worst water crisis in 30 years. Reservoirs have dipped below zero level, lakes have dried up, underground water levels have gone down by disturbing proportions, schools have announced holidays to protect children from heatwaves, small hotels and restaurants are being indefinitely shut down, employees are being asked to work from home, piped water supply is negligibly low and ‘water rage wars’ are being fought. The situation is so bad that Jack from Titanic felt the need to bring awareness about it on Instagram.

For a city that, along with its two neighbouring districts – Kanchipuram and Thiruvallur – used to be called the ‘Yeri’ (lake) district owing to its thousands of lakes, this is deeply shameful and distressing.

But perhaps the people most affected by the Chennai water crisis, as with almost any other crisis, are women. Here’s how.

Women and Water

Water is a woman’s business. It is primarily the woman who performs the household chores – cooking, doing laundry, washing the dishes, cleaning the house – most of which include the use of water. For everyone else in the household, the need for water is only felt as far as their personal hygiene and hydration goes. Thus, during a water crisis, the responsibility and the stress falls almost entirely upon the women of the house.

According to water.org, “women around the world spend a collective 200 million hours everyday collecting water. In addition to time spent collecting water, millions may also spend significant amounts of time finding a place to go. This makes up an additional 266 million hours of time each day lost because they have no toilet at home.

During times of water crisis, the amount of time spent by women collecting and essentially managing water increases exponentially.

Women, Water and Caste/Class

Water isn’t just gendered – it is also influenced by class and in India’s case, caste. 

My friends and I haven’t been that deeply affected by the Chennai water crisis, owing to the fact that we belong to the middle or upper middle class. The worst thing to have happened to people living in houses with borewells nearby was getting muddy water for a few days.

But perhaps the people most affected by the Chennai water crisis, as with almost any other crisis, are women.

For the people without borewells nearby, this has been the situation, “We don’t have a bore so obviously we were dependant on the Metro Water for our daily supply of water. The supply was very uncertain and we had to spend several days without any water. We had to order water tanks because of this”, says a resident of Anna Nagar. “The Metro Water site through which the water tanks are booked isn’t structured properly. The orders were delayed causing us to purchase tanks from other sources at a very high rate, and this happened many times. We were also not notified as to when the water supply was going to get cut off.”  

For families such as this that can afford to spend that extra money on water, this is just a deeply annoying problem at worst. In no circumstance is it life-threatening. Yet, as we go down the social and economic strata, the stark contrast in experience of the same crisis is mindblowing.

I open the taps and the water that comes out is disgusting, it is dark and it smells terrible. So we have to depend on private water lorries for our daily supply of water. My family consists of 7 people, and we need 20-25 plastic kudams (plastic pots) everyday. Earlier, they’d sell one kudam for 50 paise but now they’ve increased the prcies to 1 rupee. I don’t blame them, I understand they have to go very far to bring the water they supply us, but it’s unsustainable for us. I am a sanitation worker and I earn a maximum of 250 rupees everyday. I can’t afford to spend 1/10th or more of my salary on just water. This is the scenario every year during summer. This year, it has just become exponentially worse. Why must we pay for water? And why so much?”, says Selvi, who lives in a slum in Vyasarpadi.

My husband is a drunkard. He does not bring in any income for the family. He started drinking because he used to get inside manholes and clean faeces and to do all of that, he needs to be intoxicated. I am blessed that I have a daughter who stands in line every day for hours to buy water. If she weren’t there, I’d have to skip going to work to wait in these never-ending queues for water. I’m a daily wage labourer, so if I don’t show up to work for even a day, I won’t have enough money for a meal. I’m sad my daughter hasn’t properly been to school in weeks because she has to wait at these lines every day. I know getting her educated is the only way I can make sure she doesn’t have to live the wretched life I am living. But I think everyone would agree that it’s more important to keep oneself alive than get an education. At least that’s what I tell myself”, laments Dhanam.

Water crises force women belonging to underprivileged communities to give up more of their time and energy. This is time and energy that could be spent on activities that generate income and contribute to the formal economy. This also leads to increased dependence on male members of the family, which increases chances of abuse and inability to seek help.

Denial of water to Dalits is another severe, inhumane problem. Segregation and untouchability exist in several parts of the country, which has led to 48.4% of all villages denying access of water to Dalits. More than 20% of the Dalit population does not have access to safe drinking water.

Water and Health

Four years ago, my life was miserable because there was so much water that it destroyed my house and everything I held dear. Today, my life is miserable because I don’t have enough water. My kids are both sick. It’s the dirty water from the taps. It’s killing us.

Also read: This Women’s Day, Will We Pay Heed To A Global Ecological Crisis

A lack of water means a lack of sanitation. This is by itself a huge problem. But when the only water you can afford is also unclean, as is the case with underprivileged people, the consequences are exacerbated. According to WHO, over 1 billion people globally lack access to safe drinking-water supplies, while 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation; diseases related to unsafe water, sanitation and hygiene result in an estimated 1.7 million deaths every year.

Effects of Water Crises on Mental Health

“Those queues, oh my god, they stretch for miles. I need 15 kudams of water every day, but I only own 6 kudams. So I have to stand in line twice. I am naturally frustrated, angry, and tired. So are other people. It gets ugly, the people get violent. I see at least three quarrels near these lorries every day. They also show favouritism, these lorry men. If it’s someone who’s important, they’ll let them get the water first. They do the same for regular customers. My daughter was sick yesterday so I had to go get the water. And since I was a new face, they were giving water to people who came after me – even though I had been at the line for over two hours. I got into a water lorry fight yesterday. When will this thanni prachna (water crisis) end? I am exhausted”, says Mary.

It is clear that government mismanagement is what caused the Chennai water crisis to blow up to such levels, even though climate change is the primary factor

The effects of water scarcity on mental health is not talked about enough. Research shows that shortage of water exacerbates rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. This leads to higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, violence, family struggles, and even suicide. According to one study by Australian psychologists, rates of suicide and self-harm jump 8 percent after droughts and heat waves.

The Way Forward

It is clear that government mismanagement is what caused the Chennai water crisis to blow up to such levels, even though climate change is the primary factor. For example, although the Tamil Nadu government had made rainwater harvesting mandatory in 2003, they did not care to check if it was actually being implemented. 

Chennai alone needs 12 tmc of water. If we are maintaining our four lakes properly and in full capacity, we get about 11 tmc of water. There are other small lakes as well here.says Sunderrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal (Friends of Nature). “Wastewater recycling is the solution. It is very cost effective and does not cause any major environmental hazards. Desalination completely destroys marine life.

Also read: How Women Empowerment Helps In Achieving Climate Justice

Just last week, CM Palanisamy laid the foundation stone for a third desalination plant. The only way forward is for the government to take the initiative to find long-term, environment-friendly solutions such as sewage treatment and groundwater replenishment – and to be consistent in implementing them.


Featured Image Source: The Print

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