Certainly one of Chennai’s greatest reservoirs, Chembarambakkam Lake, is now a cracked, windswept mudflat. There are swarms of bugs as big as hummingbirds, stray goats nibbling at dust-coated shrubs and what seems like a number of water buffalo – however no water. A large pipe that is supposed to carry water into the town is empty.
There are similarly parched scenes at Chennai’s three different main reservoirs. This city of nearly 10 million – India’s sixth-largest – has nearly run out of water. Municipal taps work just a few hours per week. Trains are arriving every few days with emergency water supplies. Residents who can afford it purchase truckloads of water from non-public tankers that carry it from borewells – deep, narrow wells usually equipped with a pump — drilled farther and farther out into the countryside, way beyond the town limits his cramped office close to Chennai’s seafront, Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist, unfurls a map of Chennai’s reservoirs and its car factories. The town is India’s Detroit – an auto industry hub. He traces his finger across the circumference of a reservoir, after which further out, to all of the wetlands surrounding it.
“A reservoir is not only a pot. It has a catchment – and the way you employ or abuse the catchment also determines how healthy your reservoir is going to be,” Jayaraman explains. The catchment is the encircling area where rainfall can flow into the reservoir.
That is the issue at Chembarambakkam Lake, he says.