Historic drought affects Indian water security

Water shortages are putting lives at risk, jeopardising industries and driving internal migration.


India is suffering from a historic drought, leaving south Indian cities without access to water.


– The water shortage has significantly affected agriculture and local services, with repercussions for food and economic security
– People are being driven to leave their communities in search of water, creating increasing levels of internal displacement
– Water shortages in India are predicted to increase over the next decade, creating an urgent need for better water management strategies.

Southern Indian cities are suffering from a historic drought, leaving approximately 600 million people suffering from high to extreme water shortages. The cause of these extreme water shortages has been attributed to the unsustainable use of groundwater by the agricultural sector and the delayed monsoon rains this year. The monsoon rains arrived in late July, which provided some relief to communities suffering from a lack of water. However, this year it rained less and later than expected, failing to make up for the huge deficit. The government has been transporting in water from other regions by truck, but the amount provided is insufficient.


Photo: Francisco Anzola/Flickr

In the next few years, the water shortages will continue to increase, and by 2030 up to 40% of India’s population will not have access to drinking water. This is because the primary water source used in India is groundwater, which has been used at an unstainable rate in 12 major cities since 2013. Climate change and rapid urbanisation have contributed to the unstainable rate of groundwater consummation, exacerbating India’s water woes. The region has had a decrease of 14 rainy days a year over the last three decades, a worrying trend attributed to climate change and deforestation. Currently, the monsoon season generates 80%-85% of the water needed in Chennai, the region’s major urban hub, through the October–December period, replenishing the reservoirs and groundwater for the rest of the year. But climate change in India is predicted to extend the dry season, which will result in fewer monsoons and rainfall. Chennai relies on four small water reservoirs, and when they run dry in a drought there are no other water resources to draw from.

Chennai, one of the worst affected major cities, is responsible for 40% of India’s automobile industry, which has polluted natural bodies of water, further decreasing the availability of potable water. Water in smaller lakes has also become polluted due to the practice of dumping untreated sewage. These pollutants not only affect the lake water but seep into the ground, limiting viable sources of groundwater, which are already being over-used in Chennai by the commercial sector. The over-commercialisation of the region’s groundwater has brought the Tamil Nadu government, responsible for Chennai, under fire in the Madras High Court.

The government’s immediate strategy of delivering water by trucks and trains is not sustainable. The trucks are often delayed, leaving villages without water for days. In Chennai, only some of the water is free, with private sellers providing water at an unaffordable price. This black market trade has become rife with water tankers under the control of “water-mafias”, who now dictate the majority of access to water in Chennai. Consequently, the water shortages are mainly affecting lower and working-class Indians who are struggling to pay the large tariffs for water.


Health, food and economic security are now at risk of being compromised, as the water shortages are having detrimental effects on the local industry. Local hospitals are struggling to source water, which has restricted medical assistance for those vulnerable to the effects of extreme dehydration. With basic services becoming increasingly scarce there has been a strong trend of migration to major cities from remote villages. The major hubs are straining to accommodate the increased flux of people in search of water.

The drought has begun affecting crop yields and agriculture, which uses 79% of the water in the Chennai basin. Decreased crop yields will affect the world economy and food supply, as India exports more water-intensive goods than any other country in the world. Modi has promised a key initiative to combat future water crises, by providing piped drinking water to all of India by 2024. This plan will also act to stem the agricultural sector’s over-extraction of groundwater by increasing monitoring of water distribution. As the government cracks down on water distribution, the agriculture lobby has been fighting against state efforts to implement power metering and diversions to urban centres. The taping of groundwater has been instrumental to the growth of India’s agricultural industry, skewing water distribution to large-scale farmers with the resources to purchase pumping equipment. However, smaller-scale farmers who are reliant on local hand-drawn wells have been compromised by the over pumping.

The Modi government has acknowledged the challenge of securing drinkable water sources. Chennai’s population has ballooned in the last century and the infrastructure needed to stem contamination of drinking sources has lagged. The Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply has commissioned two plants to desalinate seawater and will build two other plants to convert wastewater for industrial use within the next five years. This will alleviate some of the industry generated water pressure on Chennai, however, the lack of regulation around commercial water use will continue to be the primary barrier to successful water security.

Critics of the current government’s water management plan have suggested that the drought has arisen because of the lack of water catchments and not the lack of rainfall. Across India, only 8% of rainfall is conserved, leaving a primary source of water greatly underutilised. Chennai is currently the only city in India to have a law mandating rainwater harvesting in buildings, but this law has not been implemented, leaving many private homes and businesses without a sustainable water source.  The Tamil Nadu government is currently in court due to their alleged mismanagement of water distribution and their failure to implement preventable strategies to avoid the drought. The case will likely result in the implementation of the neglected water management plan, making it compulsory for private buildings to reduce dependency on the groundwater source. Private water harvesting has proven successful for the communities in Chennai that have implemented it and bypassed the need for reliance on water trucks and empty pipes.

The water in Chennai is predicted to become more strained due to the high population growth in major cities. The UN expects that Delhi will face a 52% population rise by 2035 and Chennai will increase by 47% in the same period. For water-poor cities like Chennai, the looming threats of climate change, population growth and long-term infrastructure underinvestment could culminate in a struggle for basic survival.