Law Student, New Delhi



The Chennai water crisis refers to the severe shortage of potable water in the India city of Chennai in Tamil Nadu mainly due to rainfall deficit, successive droughts, depleting groundwater due to over use, etc as a result of which four main reservoirs supplying water to the city had run dry. As the tap water stopped running its residents relied on alternative water sources including unreliable public water pumps & costly private water tankers. The inability to meet demand for water forced many businesses like hotels & restaurants to close. Many fights also broke out over water which left several people dead & several injured. While many wealthy residents and business owners have opted to pay for costly private water tankers, the poor who mainly live in slums do not have this option; a family in Chennai’s slums may receive as little as 30 litres (7.9 US gallons) of water every day compared to an average American household which uses 1,150 litres (300 US gallons) of water a day.


The objective of this project is to do an analysis of this water crisis, reasons behind the crisis, steps taken by the government & their sustainability. The project also aims to come up with some possible suggestions to abate & overcome such water-related crisis in other Indian cities. 


  • Whether adequate measures have been taken to tackle future water crisis in other Indian cities?
  • Whether setting up more desalination plants is a viable solution to overcome water crisis? 


Chennai water crisis and similar water crisis in other Indian cities can be prevented by balancing nature & inter-State ties especially by focussing more on recycling & re-use of water. 


This research work is based on the doctrinal method of research.


Chennai water crisis in June 2019 caused much uproar across India. Water crisis in Chennai surprised many as the city is known for frequent floods. What people missed was that the floods in Chennai occurred not due to the abundance of water but due to the rampant encroachment of wetlands & absence of regular desilting. It might still seem strange to many that how can city with so many wetlands, catchments & reservoirs suddenly run out of water so much so that off city officials declared ‘Day Zero’ or the day when almost no water is left to distribute. The water crisis was thought to have been caused by the 2 years of deficit rainfall & inefficient management of the water reservoirs. Scarcity of essential natural resources like water not only leads to economic loss but can also case severe social unrest as was evident in Chennai few months ago when people were attacking each other over water woes. 

Official discourse during the crisis was said to be along predictable lines. Central government rushed water trains to quench the thirst of the city residents & when some normalcy returned suggestions were made about the augmentation of the water sources, deepening of waterbodies, etc. Maverick ideas like population decongestion, developing nearby areas to stop migration to the city, etc were also being discussed. These ideas have been tried & tested since long & have yielded little results. In the last 40 years, some major projects were initiated to tap both fresh water & sea water for Chennai. Telugu Ganga Project or the Krishna Water Supply Scheme (1996) & the Veeranam Project (2004) were based on the Inter-State rivers-the Krishna & the Cauvery, both depended on the south-west monsoon (June-September). Their drawback is that even if realised to their fullest potential, they still cannot supply the required quantum of water to the whole city. Also, these projects are based on Inter-State rivers not free from disputes & are also unpredictable. 

Two desalination plants of 100 MLD each were also commissioned in the past the government is working on setting up more desalination plants with much higher capacities. But these desalination plants as they operate today are not sustainable given that they are too costly to operate. They are also not environment friendly as per various researches. Deepening & silting of exisiting reservoirs has its own problems as they too involve huge costs for removing & transporting the silt has pressurised the state finances. Rainwater harvesting is a sustainable option but for a metropolitan city like Chennai, it cannot be the cure for all related problems. It also its own infrastructure & site related issues. 

As per the government’s own forecasts, Chennai & nearby areas will have shortfall of over 1000MLD by 2020. Therefore, even if there plenty of monsoon rains in the overcoming years, the possibility of Chennai becoming a water-surplus city is not very bright given the past experiences. As per a report published in the Hindu quoting the Central Public Health & Environmental Engineering Organisation, the average water supply in urban local bodies of the country is 69.25 litres per capita per day (LPCD) against the service level benchmark of 135 LPCD. Hence there is a compelling need for a paradigm shift in the way such water crisis is to be dealt with.

Similarly as in numerous other Indian urban areas, the idea of waste-water recycling & re-use has not yet gotten the creative mind of either the specialists or the general population in a major way. The demand-supply gap will be a perpetual feature of urban India unless the society realizes the basic significance of recycling & re-use of water. It should be noted here that on a normal, 85 liters of water goes waste for each 100 liters used. There is likewise another reason why the idea of recycling & reuse should be promoted. As per data outfitted by the Center, while urban areas of the nation create 61,948 MLD of sewage every day, the introduced limit of sewage treatment plants (STPs) is only 23,277 MLD. This implies that upto 37.5% of the sewage can be treated. According to a moderate gauge, Chennai creates around 930 MLD of sewage, whereas its STPs can h&le 727 MLD. With quick urbanization, the space for new plants is not really accessible in peri-urban areas of Chennai, a situation pertinent to some other city in India. As a result, the city’s streams & waterways have been reduced to bearers of crude sewage. Far beyond these reasons, one of the objectives set under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, received by United Nation member nations in 2015, advices to reduce by half the extent of untreated wastewater. 

There are various courses through which wastewater can be treated at the purpose of age. A few Information Technology organizations, situated outside as far as possible, have received the idea as they have their very own STPs & use the treated water for non-destructive purposes, for example, cultivating & flushing toilets. Some top of the line residential condos also have started executing the thought. 

Realizing the potential advantages, Chennai Metro-water has finally propelled work on setting up two tertiary treated reverse assimilation plants of 45 MLD each. The procedure will include sewage treatment in three phases & will use reverse assimilation framework through which the greater part of the broke down solids & microorganisms will be removed from the treated sewage. 

In addition, ventures are on to try different things with the possibility of conjunctive use of fresh water & treated sewage-blending treated sewage in with fresh water by giving it access to the pools of Porur & Perungudi. These are just a few methods of water treatment, the extension for which is huge & still undiscovered. 

All stated, a shrewd society can’t enable itself to become self-satisfied once the stormy season begins. The present discussion should be taken forward with the goal that waste water is reused & recycled in an inventive & ideal manner.


According to a recent NITI Aayog report, 21 Indian cities will run out of groundwater by 2020 if usage continues at the current rate. They must do something substantial by setting up water planning & management boards to overcome the impeding crisis that can take a heavy toll on the well being of the city residents.

New Delhi & NCR

According to various reports, Delhi groundwater has been rapidly declining over the past years. Even though groundwater meets only 10% water requirements in Delhi, its depletion nonetheless should be cause of concern. Another problem in Delhi regarding water bodies & water sources is encroachment. According to a report by Delhi Parks & garden society over 200 water bodies including lakes & ponds have been encroached not only by common public but also by the government have they have now been converted into parks, institutions, malls & even a bus stations. These bodies are need to recharge the ground water by significantly tapping the fresh water. The city meets it water needs by importing water from outside Delhi. According to Delhi Jal Board, over 60% of the water supplied by the board comes from Yamuna River & over 30% is outsourced from the Ganga. Yamuna is very polluted in Delhi & if steps are taken for cleaning it, it can significantly contribute fulfill the water needs of the city. 


Bangalore the IT City of India is also facing a water crisis mostly resulting from massive urbanisation, increasing population & lack of proper planning. The city gets most of its water form Kaveri River which is subject to inter-state river agreement between Karnatak & Tamil Nadu is not free from controversies. In its 2016 report, the Center for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science reported that though the city has adequate water, its sustainability would depend on political will, a readiness to receive decentralised models & residents asserting their entitlement to water. That likely could be a work in progress. Some of the steps taken by the state government to tackle water shortage includes mandatory rain-water harvesting systems in residential complexes, reclaiming lost lakes & ponds, recharge of ground water, promoting water recycling & reuse, etc. 


Though Mumbai gets flooded every ear due to excessive rais, the city nonetheless faces water shortage & crisis. As opposed to Delhi, Mumbai gets most of its water from groundwater. Most of the water in the city gets wasted due to leakages. In terms of water management, the government has been contemplating since long to bring Eco-friendly housing laws where emphasis would be placed on rainwater harvesting, economical use of electricity, planting of trees, etc. The use of groundwater is also almost unregulated in the city in practice even though there is a limit on how much groundwater could be used & exhausted. It has additionally been seen that burrowing as too profound could prompt increase in water saltiness. It was therefore important to concentrate on different alternatives, for example, dams, rainwater reaping, recycling and so on. The City also planning to build some desalination plants to convert the sea water into potable drinking water.  

As per a report in DNA, the draft Maharashtra Groundwater (Development & Management) Rules, 2018, makes it necessary to have rain-water harvesting systems in building more than 100 square meters. Despite the fact that BMC made rainwater harvesting m&atory for huge residential complexes, its usage & request that these buildings build up their very own practical water resources, are deficient. The arrangement remains generally on paper & social orders keep on depending entirely on the BMC for the significant share of water. Indeed, even a slight water cut calls for significant way of life changes & creates uneasiness among residents as there is practically irrelevant dependance on rainwater.


According to a report of Central Public Health & Engineering Organisation’s Kolkata consumption of water per person at more than 600 litres is highest in India, compared to the lowest consumption in Chennai with almost 84 litres per person, Bangalore at 100 litres & Mumbai at 170 litres. Like many other Indian cities, Kolkata too faces water crisis due to depleting groundwater. Another alarming side effect of this is its impact on the health of the rivers in the city. As per a study undertaken by the IIT-Kharagpur, a disaster is waiting to happen with direct threats to both food production & ecology. The Composite Water Management Index report released by Niti Aayog focuses at serious repercussions by 2020 in urban areas where water shortage would be noticeable. In light of the report from Kolkata Municipal Corporation of a fall in groundwater level to 11 meters from 7 meters, a study by Anna University, Chennai has reported the issue of land subsidence. As a result, the city is sinking at a disturbing pace of 12-18 mm for each year.

Cooperation between States & the Centre

For effective water management, conservation & governance, cooperation between the Central & State governments is necessary. For long, water resource offices in States have kept on following the traditional methodologies of supply expansion. The test is that of reorienting themselves towards deploying tactics of demand management, preservation, & management. The Center needs to work with States towards an institutional change for the fundamental shift in this instance. Recently, the Finance Minister promised that the government will work with States to address India’s national water security challenges.


Water crisis or shortage is not a problem unique to India. Several countries & cities therein suffer the same problem & have come up with their own unique solutions to overcome or alleviate such crisis. In such a scenario, it always better to learn from the experiences of other cities across the world & their success stories to reach a better solution for the impeding water crisis in Chennai & many other Indian cities. 

South Africa

In South African cities like Cape Town, they save water through unique concepts such as Day Zero. Day Zero is the periodic shutting down of most of the city’s taps thus prompting better & more efficient use of water. A sustainable administration solution to this issue alongside public interest is essential to ensure that our future generations don’t suffer as a result of our failures. There can be one additional learning from South Africa ie diversification of administrative & commercial apparatuses in a city to different locations of the State. For instance, South Africa has three de facto capitals-Pretoria, the administrative capital; Cape Town, the legislative capital; & Bloemfontein, the legal capital. Netherland which has two de facto capitals-Amsterdam, the official capital; and The Hague, the seat of government follows the same methodology. Such distribution of administrative & business apparatus if adopted in Indian cities will diminish the pressure on their restricted water resources & also make other towns & cities more attractive for rural-migrants.

The American, African & Greek examples

In the United States, has planned to fulfill the water needs of Las Vegas nu utilizing the excess water from the Mississippi River through a multibillion-dollar project. To overcome the water crisis in many African Nations, French engineers have drawn elaborate plans by pulling icebergs to their shores. Greece has successfully used the mega Spragg trash bag method & its ‘world’s strongest zipper’ to pull massive amounts of water from icebergs. 

These schemes have yielded novel ideas of water transportation. This has been successfully executed in the Caribbean, especially during the dry spell of 1983-84 in Antigua. The advantages of transporting water over water include the fact that one Horsepower of vitality can move 150 kg on street, 500 kg on the rail & 4,000 kg on water. Similarly, 1 litre of fuel can move 24 tons for each km on street, 85 tons on the rail & 105 tons on inland water transport. The drawback to this includes the lack of proper loading & unloading facilities to handle such a massive amount of water & such facilities are quite expensive to construct. Also, most rivers in India don’t have the depth & broadness to oblige enormous barges throughout the year. It will also require the dredging of rivers, which is excessive & might prove harmful to common ecosystems. Though India has now moved forward with its inland waterways development plans by investing in the National Waterways in the Northeast, the more serious issue is that there are too scarcely any enormous industries situated close to stream belts. The impetus for investment therein simply doesn’t exist.


Nearly half of Israel’s water is sourced through desalination. Desalination is the process of removing the salt content from the saline water in order to make it potable. If we talk about the geographical terrain of Israel, nearly 60% of Israel is desert. It has undertaken large scale projects for water management, water reclamation, desalination to overcome water shortage & desertification. It is considered a global leader in effective water management & water reclamation ie reuse of used water for various purposes including agriculture. During the recent visit of Indian Prime Minister to Israel, it offered support to India in dealing with desertification & water management.

Saudi Arab & West Asian Nations

Most of the Arab nations face acute water shortage. Most of them rely on massive desalination plants to fulfill their water needs. Saudi Arabia has built numerous desalination plants along its western coastlines. Ras-al-Khair is its largest desalination plant with a capacity of 1000MLD. UAE is also building a plant with similar capacity to convert sea water into potable water. Tamil Nadu on the other hand has great coastline but the capacity of its desalination plants add up to only 200MLD. Recently Chief Minister laid foundation of a 3rd desalination plant with a capacity of 150MLD. Such plants need to be built not only among the coastline of Chennai but along the coastline of the State which can make several cities & towns of the state self-sufficient in generating freshwater from these desalination plants.

Some Problems with the Desalination Approach

Since desalination involves removal of massive salt contents from the sea water in order to make it potable, over a period of time these highly concentrated salts known as brime gets accumulated & harm the surrounding ecosystem and marine life. There are also concerns that desalination drains away not only the salt but some vital minerals which needs to be in a potable water collectively referred to as TDS. The government therefore needs to look for some alternatives that minimises such risks. An alternative technique can be the low-temperature thermal desalination (LTTD) process where cold water plumbed from the ocean depths is passed over these tubes & the vapour condenses into fresh water & the resulting salt diverted away.

Incentivising migration to other Urban Centres

As discussed earlier, as long as there is continued migration to Chennai from urban areas, water problems will persist. Therefore Chennai need to be decongested by diversifying its administrative, judicial & commercial machinery to other cities of the State in order to incentivise migration to other urban conglomerates. 

The Government must sincerely work therefore to equip other cities of the state especially those with better availability of water sources with better education institutions, employment opportunities & decent life qualities  in order to deflect migration patterns away from Chennai. Many districts of Tamil Nadu receive more rainfall as compared to Chennai. For instance, the districts of Cuddalore, Nagapattinam & Tiruchirappalli together receive an average rainfall of more than 1,200 mm per annum, compared to the 900 mm-1000 mm average annual rainfall of Chennai. Government can shift some investment & planning to these areas.

And lastly the State also needs to modify its cultivation model that currently consumes huge amount of water. An ostensible move away from paddy to less water-escalated however high-income yields, for example, vegetables, pulses, & ornamental plants would spare & discharge freshwater adding up to the capacity of at least two Mettur dams. Tamil Nadu & Chennai also needs to think some out-of-the-box solutions in addition to the traditional solutions like ground water recharge & water harvesting. Coupled with some other judicious approaches & planning, they can significantly reduce the water crisis if not permanently solve it.


Almost all metropolitan cities of India face a water crisis & shortage. Chennai’s water crisis is significant in this regard because the city has one of the lower per capita water consumption rate in India. Despite that the city ran out of water and the officials had to declare day zero ie when there is no water left to supply. Major reasons for the water shortage include, water waste, lack of proper water management, depleting ground water levels, lack of water treatment & inefficient use of water, etc. In cities, due to rapid urbanisation & population influx, water reservoirs that help in groundwater recharge are often encroached upon leading to a crisis over a period of time.  Various proposals have been mooted by water specialist and governments to remedy water crisis in Indian cities, As far as Chennai is concerned, they include, setting up more desalination plants, de-congesting the city, shifting the economic & administrative machinery of the city to other cities, water-harvesting, etc. The city can learn from global experience in this regard as cities & nations all across the world have been facing water crisis & shortages over the past few years.  The idea of waste-water recycling & re-use has not yet gotten the creative mind of either the specialists or people in general in a major way. The demand-supply gap will be a lasting feature of urban India except if society realizes the basic significance of recycling and re-use of water.