Indian city battles long drought

Prices of water and food have soared in Chennai where reservoirs have dried up
Indian city battles long drought

People in Chennai protest by carrying empty water pots on June 24 to press for a solution to the water crisis. (Photo by IANS)

The "plop, plop, plop" of a water leak echoes as a ray of afternoon sunlight illuminates the brick-walled bathroom of a student hostel.

"Mad idiots,” the hostel warden in India's Chennai city yells at residents in a corridor as he rushes to close the tap. "How many times have I told you guys not to waste water? It's damned expensive.”

Tap water supplies are severely restricted and a delivery by a 12,000-liter water tanker now costs 6,000 rupees (close to US$100), a tenfold rise since May.

Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state with a population of nine million, is in the grip of a drought and resulting water crisis.

Public water taps are now dry. Most of the city's middle class and poor wait each day in long queues for tankers to arrive so that they can fill a few plastic buckets with barely enough water for drinking let alone cooking and bathing.

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Young graphic designer Richard Cliff Lynrah complains the cost of a  20-liter container of drinking water has jumped from 35 rupees to 50 rupees, which is equivalent to 73 U.S. cents.

"I remember my mother telling me that the next war will be over water," Lynrah said. "But I never thought I'd have to fight others to take a shower."

The price of ordinary drinking water at roadside shops has more than doubled to 25 rupees for a one-liter plastic bottle, with businesses large and small accused of profiteering.

Chennai's four main water reservoirs were dry by the end of May as the southern state had 41 percent less than normal rainfall this year.

A weak monsoon, poor desilting and increased construction in catchment areas have all contributed to the current crisis, according to local media reports.

The "pathetic situation" of buildings being constructed on Chennai's main Cooum River could be seen on Google Maps' satellite images, said a professor at the city's Jesuit-run Loyola College who asked not to be named.

John Arokiaraj, state coordinator of Caritas India, the social services wing of the Catholic Church, said that some 40 percent of Chennai's groundwater is unfit to drink. He added that Caritas projects around the parched state seek to promote water conservation and the collection of rainwater.

A man carries water pots on his two-wheeler from a water distribution point in Chennai. (Photo by IANS)

The lack of water has affected almost every sphere of life. For example, several medium-sized hotels have temporarily shut down. Many restaurants, in a city where vegetarian dishes are common, have hiked their prices because vegetables have become more expensive due to the lack of rain. Even the banana leaves on which many rice-based meals are served have become more costly.

Jyoti Sharma, from a non-governmental agency called Force that is active on water issues, said water distribution in Chennai had long between unequal because some people could afford to pay for it while others struggle with the financial burden. But he added that if there were to be no water at all "even the rich are in trouble."

Arokiaraj of Caritas said Chennai's middle class suffer most because the well-off can "shell out" more money for the vital liquid and poor slum dwellers at least benefited from the provision by metropolitan authorities of low quality water.

"The middle class do not have enough money for water, but they are not poor enough to be a government priority," Arokiaraj said.

State Chief Minister K. Palaniswami said last week that the situation was under control but the media was "creating an illusion of scarcity."

The state government's primary responses have been to bring in water via trains from neighboring districts and to seek to revamp rainwater collection systems.

But Lynrah does not see any shortening in the length of queues of women waiting for water tankers to arrive.

He feels sorry for the worst off who have trouble in just quenching their thirst as well as for people scratching dirt from their skin as they have no water in which to bathe.

And he makes sure there are no "plop, plop, plop" leaks in his bathroom by tightly closing all the taps.

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