When Water — and Hope — Run Dry

My friend Prabalpratap Singh Bhadoria snapped a photo of the water train in Chennai, India, where the water crisis is on the minds of the city’s 10 million thirsty residents.

Still think climate change is fake? Visit Chennai, India, where taps run dry.

I arrived in this South Indian coastal city about six weeks ago to care for a friend’s sweet kitty, who would sit at my feet while I wrote at my computer. I stayed in her upscale, spacious apartment overlooking the relatively litter-free Palavakkam Beach. A man was paid to open the gate every time I left on my Vespa scooter.

On my way to yoga class at 5:30 a.m., I’d pass a surprisingly large number of neighbors playing cricket, fishing or taking walks. The woman on my corner of the East Coast Road, fondly called the ECR, sells me perfectly ripe, sweet mangos. She charges me 75 cents for three fruits, but her daughter always charges me 50 cents. It never bothered me, because I make U.S. dollars and not rupees.

It is the thick of summertime. Temperatures hover around 100 degrees most days, and there is no rain except for a stray, short shower perhaps once every two weeks. I quickly understood why people woke up so early to exercise.

I heard a lot of talk about the water crisis in Chennai, formally known as Madras before the English showed up. But for my first month, I barely noticed it. Once during an exploration to the city’s famous “Broken Bridge” across the Adyar River, I passed a crowd of women holding empty, brightly colored jugs. They were waiting, somewhat impatiently, to fill up the jugs at a recently topped-up blue water tower in their neighborhood.

That evening, as I was taking a shower and filling my glass with chilled drinking water, it was hard to imagine that I was in the same city. My taps worked just fine.

We all live in a place of privilege, until we don’t.

One evening while I was out late enjoying a slice of rosewater cake with a friend, my Uber passed a long line of tanker trucks moving water into those blue towers throughout the city. Apartment complexes were buying truckloads of water to fill up their cisterns. I could only imagine the politics behind which neighborhood would get water first.

“I heard the OMR,” standing for the Old Mahabalipuram Road, “was out of water completely,” a friend said during a discussion of the buildings popping up on land that was once wetlands.

It hasn’t rained substantially in the city in years, as the replenishing annual monsoon rains repeatedly failed to arrive. The short and infrequent thunderstorms were only enough to create a few puddles that made navigating on my scooter slightly more treacherous. While dipping my dosa into sambar over breakfast one morning, a friend pointed out the bone-dry rainwater catchment area next to the nearby temple.

In Chennai, it is hot and dusty. But I was sitting pretty in the air conditioning.

Then, I stayed a few days with another friend in a neighborhood called Anna Nagar. Located inland about an hour north from previous home on the beach, his apartment was relatively inexpensive. Outside his gate, a man stretched himself out on the dusty streets to nap after what can only be presumed to be a long, booze-filled day. Across the street, I bought a South Indian filter coffee from a tea stall for 15 cents. Like everywhere, bikes and cars swerved around cows meandering in the streets.

Next to the tea stall stood a plastic water tower about 10 feet tall. From my friend’s second-story apartment, I watched the women line up to fill their brightly colored water jugs. It was only women carrying those heavy jugs. It looked like there was one woman overseeing the distribution of the water. There was an air of money and power about her. I gave thanks for not having that chore.

Then I turned on the tap. Nothing came out. The water had run dry.

It was only temporary, my friend explained. They had water, just not enough to run the pump throughout the day. On the days when the water flowed for an hour or so, we would fill buckets and use the water sparingly to brush our teeth and wash up. One night, we had plans to celebrate special occasions with our friends but very little water. He shaved with a small cup of water. I pulled my unwashed hair back neatly and put on my fanciest skirt.

The next day, the news announced a daily 50-wagon train carrying 2.5 million liters of water would be heading to Chennai from elsewhere in the state. In a city bursting at the seams with about 10 million residents, it simply wasn’t enough. In many of the city’s slums, people wash dishes with graywater and spend a hefty percentage of their income just to quench their family’s thirst. And even then, the money isn’t always enough to get the water to survive.

As climate change worsens, so will political maneuvering. It’s only a matter of time before people will start dying of thirst here and around the world. The human body is 60% water, and we can only live a few days without water — maybe less in this extreme heat.

But as is human nature, no one is likely to consider it a real crisis unless it impacts them personally.

Two days ago, I went out to dinner with my friend from Palavakkam Beach. When we returned to her home, we discovered that her landlord had dropped off a huge, blue plastic rain barrel for them. In what felt like a hypothetical exercise, she and her husband debated whether to put it in a bathroom, where it would take up the entire space but could be filled easily, or outside on their patio. Their concern was more about space than about water — for now.

I wondered if in the future, kitchens would be designed to include a space for a water barrel. There was a time when people didn’t know where to put the refrigerator. Times change, and so do the solutions to our climate-related problems. But for many, hope is also running dry.

My friend sent a note to the landlord, asking what to do about the water barrel. “Do not worry,” was the reply. “You will never have to use it.”

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