Chennai water crisis: 'We can't do anything'

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Indian residents stand around with plastic pots filled with drinking water at a distribution point in Chennai on June 20, 2019. - Water levels in the four main reservoirs in Chennai have fallen to one of its lowest levels in 70 years, according to Indian media reportsImage source, R Parthabhan
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People across Chennai are having to fill up pots at water distribution points

People in Chennai in southern India are going to drastic lengths to get water, as the city battles an acute crisis after months of poor rainfall.

"We can't do anything," Saritha, who lives in Tondiarpet in the north of the city, told BBC Hindi. "We weren't getting any water earlier. Now, we're getting some water - which is a big thing."

For Saritha and her neighbours, the water shortage means they've had to learn to make do with much less than they're used to - and use water that may not be safe to drink.

Image source, Piyush Nagpal
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Saritha says if water is scarce "there are bound to be fights"

The fishermen's housing colony where they live has a borewell - but its water is salty. So people have been forced to get their water from an underground storage unit.

But a pipe is clearly broken and water from the sump above ground appears contaminated - residents have described it as "muddy" with floating particles of dirt visible.

Reports of people falling sick in the neighbourhood have been doing the rounds and there are suspicions that it is due to the unclean water they've been forced to make do with.

Image source, Piyush Nagpal
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The water Saritha collects in her drum appears muddy

The city authorities bring water for the leaky underground unit. Government tankers also supply the colony with water for people to fill up containers - as they do in other parts of the city - but deliveries have been erratic.

"If we don't get enough water, there are bound to be fights," laughs Saritha.

Her neighbour, Vijayashree agrees but says people are getting on better now. In other parts of the city there have been reports of clashes breaking out between residents.

"Each of our households gets four small drums of water. Now, everyone shares it," Vijayashree says. "Yes, we used to quarrel over the number of drums each of us got. Not now."

The water scarcity at the fishermen's colony is just the tip of the crisis that has gripped Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu state, for weeks now.

The city experienced massive floods four years ago due to heavy rainfall during the monsoon season. They caused different problems but at least replenished the water table. Since then there has been very little rain.

Four of the city's major reservoirs have now run almost dry. And while there is a little water still available, it's not clear how long it will last.

Image source, R Parthibhan
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The Puzhal reservoir is one of four supplying Chennai which have run dry

As a result, most of Chennai's more than four million population is now relying solely on government tankers to provide their water. Others are paying large sums of money for private companies to supply water to their homes. Even then, it can take up to four days for the tanker to arrive.

And the price of each tanker has quadrupled in the last month because water is so scarce.

A number of smaller restaurants have even been forced to close, while some people have been told to work from home in a bid to conserve water in their workplaces. The city's metro system has also stopped using air conditioning at its stations.

Image source, R Parthibhan
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Everyone is affected by the crisis, regardless of where they live in the city

Anuradha Santhanam, who lives in West Mambalam in south-west Chennai, said she was paying 1,000 rupees ($14; £11) for water a few weeks ago before the crisis hit. Now she has to spend 4,000 rupees a month on water.

"Sometimes, when the temperature goes up we bathe in water from cans that are normally used for drinking purposes only," she said.

The neighbouring state of Kerala has offered to supply two million litres of water, which Tamil Nadu's chief minister has accepted.

"The scarcity we are facing today is man-made. Several ponds and lakes are filled with garbage. Lakes and reservoirs have not been desilted for years. There is no right of way for water," Dr Sekhar Raghavan, a physicist and water expert, said.

Image source, Piyush Nagpal
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Lakes and ponds in Chennai are polluted and littered with rubbish

In fact, he began a campaign for mandatory rainwater harvesting years ago. A previous chief minister even brought in a law to make every house owner have a facility for rainwater harvesting - but successive governments have failed to implement it.

Dr Raghavan's Rain Centre has been receiving an increase in inquiries about water harvesting.

One recent visitor was young housewife Soumya Arjun, who lives in a complex that houses 69 apartments.

"The facilities manager at our complex said a rain water harvesting system will cost the occupants 200,000 rupees. That is approximately 3,000 rupees from each of the 69 apartments.

Image source, Piyush Nagpal
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Rich and poor alike have to rely on water supplied by tankers for now

"It totals just one third of the price occupants have been paying to get just 24,000 litres from a water tanker facility," she told BBC Hindi.

What has been striking in this latest bout of water scarcity is that it looks like no Chennai resident has been spared.

"The scarcity has brought the rich as well as the poor on par. You may have money but that doesn't mean you have water," said Dr Raghavan.