Hi-tech industry & low-tech H2O

Hannah writes*

2003 drought, 2005 flood, 2015 flood, 2019 drought. Chennai is experiencing a cycle of under- and oversupply of water that the climate crisis will only accelerate. Chennai’s water management strategy must address floods, droughts and climate change, but the city’s government has prioritized economic growth over sustainable water management.

This led the city to run dry on June 19, 2019, meaning that the population shifted to unreliable and unsafe private water supplies. This event was a result of many factors. One being the incentives for the IT business to settle along the Old Mahabalipuram Road (OMR) area, which was previously wetland. Businesses were encouraged to move to the OMR by the construction of a 45 km road connecting IT parks. Furthermore, the municipality increased the floor space index, determining the built-up space, which meant that buildings could be taller and provide more housing opportunities.

How did this development influence water management? For one, the construction of glass buildings and cement foundations for companies like Amazon, PayPal and HP, headquartered in the OMR area, pushed away the marshland and natural infrastructure of channels which used to connect different water storages and served as a natural flood mitigating system. As water has no place to go the risk of flooding increases. Close to the sea, this water also gets contaminated with salinized water due to sea water intrusion in freshwater aquifers which means that drinkable water is lost.

Moreover, the marshy ground around OMR requires the water pipes to be resilient against high hydraulic permeability and sponginess. There is a lack of clarity as to why there is no proper network of piped water supply, but one could guess that it is due to the high costs and corporations’ tendencies to cut corners. As a result, OMR relies on water tankers. Most of those private-owned tankers extract from farm wells outside of the city. This leaves the farmers with less water for irrigation of the fields. People in the villages are upset as water is taken away from them for their drinking supply. Understandably, they do not want to cater to the non-piped supply in the OMR area.

According to the citizens of OMR, the municipality knew about these circumstances before construction. To remedy the situation, they promised to build piped supply, but they have yet to follow through.  The economic growth brought an increase of demand for water. Municipal tankers could not keep up, so the area increasingly turned to private tanker businesses. While the businesses are fairly reliable, they are not accountable as they steal water from the water sources of the surrounding villages. This is where it gets tricky: one deficit creates a network of deficits. The government failed to provide safe piped supply and regulate the over-extraction of water sources in the villages. However, the IT companies whose water consumption happens at the expense of the villagers, should also be held accountable. The companies must ensure that they do not support an inequal water management of the region while the climate crisis accelerates the overall demand.

Writing as a German who has always enjoyed the privilege of piped, unlimited water supply, I am trying to somehow capture one aspect of this downward slope of Chennai’s water management. Some of those IT companies originate in the West. Often, we, as Western consumers, see the benefit of outsourcing our software development but seldomly get to know about the impact of our consumption. My main point is not to criticize globalization or transnationals. I want to point out how our outdated Western understanding of growth (based on GDP and annual revenue…) has gotten some cities, such as Chennai, into some serious trouble to ensure basic services, specifically a secure water supply.

Bottom line: In July 2019, Chennai hit its Day Zero due to several overlapping failures of water management.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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