What the water crisis in Chennai can teach us about urban management

Last month, one of the largest cities in India ran out of water. What are the causes that led to this crisis and what are its implications? Could this have been prevented? What solutions can urban management bring to the table?

It happened in mid-June this year. Lake Puzhal, the city’s largest body of water and reservoir ran completely dry, as did the other smaller lakes holding the water reserves of the city. Satellite images taken one year apart reveal a very grim situation. Last summer, the main body of water marked a large blue area on the map, while this year only arid land remains in place of the lake that served no less than 5 million people.

What happens when a city runs out of water?

This has not been the first year Chennai faced a drought, but it's likely been among the worst. With a delayed rainy season and soaring temperatures, the usual amount of water people had access to could not be provided by the local authorities anymore, making many dependent on private tankers that sell and transport water. For the very unfortunate 820,000 people living in slums around the city, this expensive source was not a realistic option. When people do not have running water, they are forced to compromise on hygiene and sanitation and to use other available sources, which can easily put them at risk for many dangerous diseases. During this crisis, Indian media has reported that some people in slums have fleed to the nearest railway stations and shopping centres, in order to have access to toilets and clean drinking water. Lack of essential resources can also create tensions and lead to violence and crimes among people in the community, which has tragically already happened in Tamil Nadu as well.

Different professional sectors also had a lot to lose in this crisis. Hotels and restaurants were forced to shut down temporarily. Schools were not able to provide water to students anymore. Hospitals without water had many delays in providing treatment, which could have been life-threatening. Since groundwater is needed from agriculture, this sector was affected as well. The IT sector was also slowed down, since they needed to use water too. Such a crisis can easily paralyze an entire city, which is why it's important to understand the underlying mechanisms that caused it.

What caused the water crisis in Chennai?

There are several factors that contributed to this situation: climate change and increasing temperatures on the one hand, and faulty urban management, mainly poor land use and water management, on the other hand. In an attempt to better understand these issues in relation to the local context, we’ve asked our colleague Dr Maartje van Eerd, Senior Expert in Housing and Social Development, who has conducted research and training in the area and has extensive experience in resettlement projects.

Dr van Eerd believes Chennai suffers from the combined consequences of climate change and poor urban management. Despite the risks, extreme weather poses on a city with only dry and rainy seasons, mismanagement issues can weigh heavier. Many things had to go wrong from a city management perspective for this situation to occur and one important turning point in the story of Chennai is the massive flood that hit the city in 2015. Back then, the local government determined that the slums along the river had blocked the water flow, thus leading to the flooding. To solve this issue, authorities began a relocation project and moved the slum dwellers to big resettlement sites in the swampy outskirts of the city, in the marshlands. Despite clearing up the slums, the area did not remain free, because other private developments took place along the river and mass public transport systems were even built in the riverbank. These decisions did little to solve the existing flooding problem and created an environmental ticking bomb on top of it. 

The marshlands are very important waterbodies because they store water in the dry season and prevent flooding in the rainy season. This is an already existing perfect natural balance which was destroyed by relocating population in that area. Beautifying the city and favouring the elite which lives close to the centre, comes at a huge cost for the poor populations relocated in the swamp areas and for the environment that suffers serious damage.

TNC The Nature Conservancy Centre India

Image source: TNC - The Nature Conservancy Centre India, available at: www.tncindia.in/changing-chennais-water-story-by-restoring-its-wetlands/

How can urban management solve this?

This situation is the result of faulty decision making in the political arena, without taking into account valuable existing knowledge of environmental and urban experts in the area. Among decision-makers, there seems to be a lack of understanding of the long-term effects that such spontaneous urban plans can have. If slums cannot exist in an area, due to environmental reasons, nor should other types of construction be possible, no matter how profitable. Moreover, the housing problem of slum dwellers cannot be solved by simply physically moving them. Relocation means more than just building houses for people and in this case, some essential aspects have been omitted by placing this population in the marshlands. The inhabitants were moved to an area outside the city, without good access to basic facilities and far from the transport system, which is an infringement of their rights as citizens. Moreover, they lose access to employment opportunities, particularly women, which makes them extremely vulnerable. Besides that, the important role of marshlands in water conservation was ignored, which led to the depletion of water resources and contributed to the overall crisis.

The main solution proposed by authorities during this crisis was transporting water from other cities by train and building a system of pipes. Naturally, this raised questions and concerns in cities from the rest of the state which depend on their own natural resources for survival. Sticking to short term fixes can diminish the effects, but it will not solve the root cause of the problem. Moreover, this is very much a reactive strategy, whereas looking forward and coming up with proactive approaches, such as capturing more water in the rainy season, would be more beneficial. 

From an urban management perspective, solutions would mean more strategic choices that value the environment and livelihoods. A good plan has a vision, looks at long-term impact, sustainability and it takes all stakeholders into consideration. When decisions are made with disregard to these aspects, crises are only waiting to happen. More practically, solutions would look into ways of capturing rainwater in the monsoon season, reusing wastewater efficiently, subsidising farmers for innovative irrigation solutions and in general subsidising households to adopt smart solutions, like rain capturing structures or wastewater recirculation devices. With official help coming in a bit slow, informal solutions are already getting attention, such as this terrace designed for rainwater harvesting or this efficient irrigation solution.

Overall, the crisis and its impact point to an urgent need for close collaboration with urban experts and commitment of local leaders to adopting a more sustainable path for cities.

Why should developed countries care?

Firstly, this scenario can happen anywhere in the world, as more and more regions are affected by climate change and mismanagement is a frequently encountered issue. It is also scalable if the right measures are not taken in time (imagine only entire regions or countries with limited water). Besides that, almost everything we buy requires water to produce or grow. The scarcer water becomes, the more expensive everything that requires it for production will become. Due to globalization, production for most items takes place in countries like India, which means water-related inflation could become a reality for everyone.

More importantly, though, this scenario is also avoidable. If decision-makers seek and integrate key expertise in their processes, there is a high chance that through participation and collaboration, the devastating impact of this issue could be reduced and the issue itself could be solved.

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