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Tap water dwindles as cities parched by South India drought

by Anuradha Nagaraj | @anuranagaraj | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 28 June 2017 11:09 GMT

Farmers from the southern state of Tamil Nadu pose half shaved during a protest demanding a drought-relief package from the federal government, in New Delhi, India April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

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In many areas, piped water is being supplied only once every three to four days, as southern India's worst droughts in decades has dried up reservoirs.

By Anuradha Nagaraj

CHENNAI, India, June 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - One of southern India's worst droughts in decades has dried up reservoirs in the region, severely impacting the availability of drinking water in Chennai and other cities, with the government urging citizens to save water.

Water supplies across the port city of Chennai have dropped by half, with the government saying tap water may dwindle to a trickle in the days to come.

"We are supplying between 450 to 470 million litres of water every day," compared to the normal requirement of 830 million litres, said Arun Roy, of the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewage Board that supplies water across the city.

"Many residents have switched to their private borewells to meet their requirements, and we are also using water tankers to regulate supply."

Water from lakes and reservoirs around the city largely meet the needs of the city and its suburbs, home to more than 8 million people.

Veeranam lake in neighbouring Cuddalore district - one of Chennai's main water sources - is almost dry after the failure of the 2016 monsoons.

Depleted groundwater sources and other dried up lakes within 60 km of Chennai - including Pulicat, Puzhal, Sholavaram, Kaliveli and Maduranthakam - have left the city parched.

Domestic worker Maheshwari Karunakaran is allowed to fill only 20 pots of water every two days to meet the needs of her four-member household.

Karunakaran uses this water to drink, cook, bathe, wash utensils and clothes.

"There is a fight every time the water supply is released to the hand pump below my block of apartments," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that she often had to leave work early to queue up for water.

"Everybody needs more water. We are forced to buy additional water for anywhere between two to five Indian rupees(less than $1) per pot."

In many areas, piped water is being supplied only once every three to four days.

The water costs for most Chennai residents have gone up by 50 percent, while more people are depending on private water tankers and personal borewells for their everyday needs.

Officials say the number of calls to their helpline have increased with many people asking for water tankers. The government has 7,000 tankers in operation in the city.

Chennai also gets water from government-run desalination plants, which are now working around the clock, raising concerns about technical glitches.

"This crisis was expected considering that the last monsoons had failed," said Sekhar Raghavan of Rain Centre, a nonprofit that promotes rainwater harvesting in the city.

"But the shocker is that there has been no planning to deal with it. De-silting of lakes and reservoirs, efforts to ensure recharge of groundwater have all been missing."

According to Roy, the government started putting measures into place as early as January.

"Industries and bulk users were forewarned, and our engineers have been engaging with resident welfare associations to create awareness on the situation," he said.

"We are hoping we will get some rains in July that will help recharge some of the groundwater, failing which, the next few months will be tough."

($1 = 64.5375 Indian rupees)

(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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