By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
Tamil Nadu is one of India’s most prominent states in pharmaceutical manufacturing, ranking fifth out of the nation’s 29 states. Approximately 50 percent of the pharmaceuticals manufactured in India are exported, with the United States being a major importer of many of these drugs.
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According to Pharmaceutical Technology, Tamil Nadu supplies 50% of the global demand for a range of vaccines, 40% of the generics demand in the U.S. and 25% of all UK medicine. That makes the state of Tamil Nadu important to Americans’ health.
However, according to the Economic Times, Tamil Nadu is also facing a major water crisis due to prolonged drought. The drought, which is the area’s worst in 30 years, began in 2016.
Since then, many residents have not seen a single drop of rain in around 200 days at a stretch. Significant rainfall to solve the issue is likely to remain scarce.
The Crisis: Three Reservoirs Are Empty
Three of the four reservoirs that provide Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu and the home to over 7 million Indians, are empty. When full, they hold over 60 billion gallons.
The fourth reservoir, capable of holding nearly 24 billion gallons, had approximately half a billion gallons as of late June. That’s less than two percent of total capacity. If full, the four reservoirs could raise the water level of Lake Tahoe, which is 191 square miles, by over 18 inches.
From 2004 to 2012, Tamil Nadu received more rainfall than average, yet the government failed to consider what could occur if the rainfall diminished. Water restoration and lake rejuvenation projects were largely ignored.
Now, millions of citizens wait in long lines for their water ration from state water trucks. For those who can buy water from private water tankers, there is a waiting period of almost four weeks and the cost has quadrupled in price in three months.
Chennai is dependent on three mega water desalination plants that produce only about 47 million gallons of water per day. An additional 24 million gallons arrive via a 146-mile long pipeline. Water in abandoned quarries is also pumped out to help meet the need.
Yet the city needs an estimated 343 million gallons of water a day during “normal” times when there is no drought and the government is unable to meet that amount, falling short by nearly 40 percent. Now, the city is receiving only 5 percent of the water it needs.
City officials claim that Chennai needs only 132 million gallons a day, down more than 200 million gallons from what it used to need. Due to the lack of water, the average citizen in Chennai receives significantly less than three gallons of water per day.
Essential services have been hit the hardest with hospitals, businesses and schools struggling to remain open. Many hospitals have so little water that it is questionable how well they can clean their medical equipment.
Tamil Nadu’s Political Perspective
The official party line has been that the water scarcity is exaggerated and the media are to blame. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Edappadi Palaniswami of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party, said last month that, “If there is water shortage in one place, the media friends blow it up as a big thing. I request you all to not blow it up and show as if the entire Tamil Nadu is reeling under water crisis.”
However, the opposition party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) says otherwise. Saravanan Annadurai, a DMK spokesperson, recently said, “The government is not even acknowledging that there is a water crisis….Restaurants are closed, students are in schools where there is no water, and people working at IT companies have been asked to stay at home.”
The Madras High Court did not agree with Palaniswami. The court stated that the water scarcity did not happen in a day. The water shortage was partly due to the contamination of water bodies or their reduction in size due to construction encroachment. Furthermore, the Tamil Nadu government knew the water crisis was coming.
Further, a subsequent report found that the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) determined that these areas should never have been classified as water bodies in the first place.
The High Court directed the state government to work with organizations interested in the conservation of water and ordered the state government not to prevent demonstrations about the water crisis.
What Can Be Done about the Drought?
At one time, there were over 6,000 lakes, ponds and small reservoirs that captured the rainwater; today, fewer than 4,000 are left. As the drought continues, any rain that does fall is almost immediately absorbed by the dry waterbeds. Canals and other water supply routes have long ago become housing projects for the city’s ever-growing population that has nearly doubled since 1991.
The three “rivers” nearby are dead, killed by the filth and untreated sewer water flowing into them for decades. And underground water is too deep or contaminated for use.
Even the estimated 25 to 75 inches of rain in the October-December rainy season, about 80 to 85% of the city’s yearly rainfall, will not solve the water shortage. In addition, the rugged terrain makes it nearly impossible to build dams large enough to hold enough water for the rest of the year.
This summer, the foundation was laid for a 40-million gallon desalination plant. It is expected to be completed in 2021. In addition, Palaniswami announced the creation of the Tamil Nadu Water Resources Conservation and Augmentation Mission (TNWRCAM), which he will lead. The organization will consist of retired engineers and various experts. Palaniswami also appealed to the public to join in the mission to save water, stating the key aspects as:
- Rainwater harvesting
- Protecting water resources and increasing their storage capacity
- Sustaining drinking water supplies by fortifying the groundwater table
- Increasing the efficient use of water in agriculture and its allied sectors besides implementing rainwater harvesting for rain-fed cultivation
- Reducing the requirement of fresh water by using recycled water
- Redeeming the ecosystem of rivers, important coastal areas, water bodies in estuaries, marshlands and elsewhere
In the meantime, residents of Chennai are not going to see much relief because the water crisis will not be ending soon. Until the winter monsoons arrive, rail tankers will transport 2.6 million gallons a day, enough to meet only a small portion of Chennai’s needs.
The situation in Tamil Nadu and Chennai is not unique. According to a report by Niti Aayog, a government think tank, 21 of India’s major cities, including New Delhi, will run out of groundwater by 2020. Additionally, the report claims that the crisis is even worse in the nation’s agricultural sector, where groundwater accounts for 63% of all irrigation water.
If the water crisis continues, the United States will face its own crisis as India is the nation’s ninth largest trading partner. U.S. goods and services trade with India totaled an estimated $142.1 billion in 2018. Exports were $58.9 billion; imports were $83.2 billion. The U.S. goods and services trade deficit with India was $24.2 billion in 2018, according to a report from the Office of the United States Trade Representative.
The U.S. imports precious metals and stones (diamonds), mineral fuels, machinery, vehicles, spices, essential oils, processed fruits and vegetables, and rice. In the service industry, the U.S. imports telecommunications and computers, as well as research and development services.
What Can Americans Learn from the Drought in India?
Water is one of our nation’s 16 critical infrastructure sectors. All of us, government and private enterprise, as well as citizens, need to pay attention to the scarcity of water and to take steps now to avoid a crisis before it is too late.
The Tamil Nadu water crisis has little in common with the United States. Yet the underlying scarcity of water in major cities such as Los Angeles, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Nashville, Chattanooga and Birmingham are cited as extreme drought risk cities.
The potential for a water shortage with long-term effects also applies in many cities in Florida, Arizona, the Carolinas, Ohio and the D.C. metro area. Even small towns and agricultural areas across the nation need to be cognizant of their water supply.
A water crisis will not affect just one area of our nation. Its impact will ripple outward as agriculture suffers and people are forced to move away from drought-stricken areas, adding stress to critical infrastructures.
The U.S. federal government cannot sit idly aside and blame the weather or climate change; our nation as a whole must embrace technology and prepare for the worst. Our nation has the ability to predict droughts and analyze our supply and demand. We must ensure that we always maintain an adequate supply of clean water.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master’s of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master’s of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.