Indian women with empty plastic pots protest as they demand drinking water in Chennai on June 22, 2019.

In Chennai Water Crisis, Climate Change and Mismanagement to Blame

Indian women with empty plastic pots protest as they demand drinking water in Chennai on June 22, 2019. Visual: ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Chennai — India’s sixth largest city — is running out of water. A combination of climate change and “bad governance” are to blame, according to a local climate expert, who warns that a similar situation could easily play out across other parts of the country.

“It’s shocking, but not surprising,” Tarun Gopalakrishnan of the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment, told NPR. India’s monsoon season usually begins in June, but was delayed for a few weeks. And over the past five years, rainfall has fallen below average, causing Chennai’s major water sources to dry up.

The problem has been exacerbated by the city’s rapid urbanization. Though massive floods inundated Chennai during the monsoon season in 2015, its displaced wetlands and lakes meant the rain was unable to make it back into the city’s aquifers. According to a 2018 government report, without improved oversight, 21 major cities in India could run out of groundwater as early as next year.

Though water is being trucked in from surrounding areas, residents must be available to collect it whenever it arrives. “Our whole life has been disrupted,” one woman told The Guardian, as her youngest daughter often has to get up in the middle of the night to meet the truck. Wealthier families may be able to afford more, though “gold is cheaper than water” is now a familiar refrain through the city.

In addition to affecting homes and businesses, the lack of water in Chennai has led hospitals to increase the cost of services. Local media also reports that sanitation is suffering. And even with rain now projected to continue through Saturday, its use requires an efficient way to capture it. In 2002, the state government passed legislation that made it mandatory to have rainwater harvesting structures on all buildings. But without proper monitoring, many of them failed to work.

“This is a wake-up call for the government and citizens,” Sekhar Raghavan, director of The Rain Center, a Chennai-based nonprofit, told NPR.

Also in the news:

• They are sometimes mistaken for Navy officers, or even airline pilots, but members of the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service — while nominally among the nation’s uniformed services — have a special mission: ministering to the health needs of the nation, particularly those who might not get that care anywhere else. That mission is more than a century old, but for much of that time, the community of doctors, nurses, dentists, veterinarians, and other medical personnel who fill out the ranks of the Corps have been dogged by charges of bloat, inertia, and redundancy, Undark reported this week. And now, under the program-slashing administration of President Donald J. Trump, the future of the Corps is perhaps less certain that it has been since the Public Health Service was formalized in 1889. Mobilizations of service personnel are sluggish, disorganized, and costly, critics say, arguing that other, better-funded organizations already do what the Corps does — and they do it better. Not everyone agrees of course, but as the pressure to justify its existence becomes more acute, the Corps now must prove that, with the right resources and personnel, it can be the organization it has long claimed to be. The question, said former acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak, is simple: “Do you want this model or not?” (Undark)

• The “robotics revolution is rapidly accelerating”, according to a new report from Oxford Economics, which projects that in a little more than 10 years, millions of human factory workers around the world will be replaced by robots. Driven partly by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), the use of industrial robots has tripled in the last 20 years, the researchers say. By 2030, they estimate that an additional 20 million people will be replaced by robots, primarily in jobs with entry level skills. Another factor propelling the use of robots is that they’ve become notably cheaper; Oxford Economics notes that the average price per robot dropped some 11 percent between 2011 and 2016. The researchers also noted that countries like China, which have long staffed factories with low-paid workers, are moving aggressively to replace even those workers with automation. As a result, they warn that the increasing use of robots in factories is likely to most heavily impact workers who receive minimum wage, along with those in low-income regions of the world. This could aggravate economic and social stresses and pose “daunting policy challenges,” they warn. (CNN)

• As the first of the Democratic presidential debates kicked off this week, discussion of climate change, critics say, still came mostly as an afterthought. Moderators spent just 15 minutes on the issue across Wednesday and Thursday night and the two dozen candidates offered little in the way of concrete plans to address it. In light of this, activists are doubling down on their calls for a separate climate change debate. “This is not how you behave in an emergency,” Janet Redman of Greenpeace USA said in a statement. “Despite the candidates’ acknowledgement of the existential threat that climate change represents to humanity, we heard next to nothing over two days about how they would actually address this monumental challenge.” DNC Chair Tom Perez has argued against such an event, however, stating that it would unfairly favor candidates centering their campaigns on climate change. (Vox)

• SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket blasted off on its third-ever trip to outer space Tuesday morning, bearing a payload of two dozen small satellites for customers including the United States Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Among the cargo is the Planetary Society’s LightSail-2 cubesat – a toaster-sized device that, once it reaches orbit, will unfurl massive mylar sails to capture photons of sunlight. If all goes as planned, the photons will push the cubesat as the wind propels a sailboat, and the experiment will give researchers insight into whether “solar sailing” could one day serve as an alternative method to propel spacecraft on long missions. As part of a “memorial spaceflight” coordinated by space burial company Celestis, the cremated remains of 152 people – including former astronaut William Pogue and science journalist Frank Sietzen, Jr. – were packed into one of the satellites and will orbit the Earth for 25 years. (The New York Times)

• San Francisco is poised to become the first U.S. city to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes. In their unanimous vote in favor of an ordinance on Tuesday, city supervisors cited the rapid increase in adolescent and youth vaping, after decades of steady decline in youth tobacco use, as a driving factor. In March, the city joined New York and Chicago in criticizing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permitting e-cigarettes to be sold without undergoing premarket review for their impact on public health. Juul Labs, a leading maker of e-cigarettes headquartered in San Francisco, recently launched a ballot initiative that would potentially roll back the city’s new ordinance if successful. According to Juul spokesman Ted Kwong, the ballot initiative supports “new strict regulation and enforcement, instead of prohibition.” (CNN)

• And finally: A new report has found that a damaged rig off the Louisiana coast is gushing oil at more than a thousand times the rate its owners previously asserted. The rig has been spilling oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico for the past 14 years, since it’s underwater pipes ruptured during Hurricane Ivan. The owner, Taylor Energy Company, had maintained that the leak amounted to just a trickle, no more than four gallons a day. But using sonar techniques and advanced analyses, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Florida State University estimated a rate of more than 4,500 gallons a day. They say the leak is likely responsible for persistent oil slicks that have been spotted in satellite images. The report comes as the Trump administration moves to expand offshore drilling and loosen drilling safety regulations that were put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Said Loyola Marymount University professor Daniel Jacobs to The New York Times, “This is yet another indication that we are not ready to expand offshore drilling.” (The New York Times)