India faces the worst long-term water crisis in its history as demand outstrips supply, with millions of lives and livelihoods at risk, the government think-tank Niti Aayog warned last year. Chennai was one of 21 cities the think-tank said could run out of ground water by 2020 and this week, taps ran dry as water levels in its four major reservoirs fell to one-hundredth of what they were this time last year. The Madras High Court demanded to know why the state government had not worked through the year to avoid it. "Don't blame the hand of God, what did the hand of the man do?" the court said.
The struggle for water has intensified in many parts of India, where villages and cities have run out of water - a problem campaigners have said is due as much to years of poor groundwater management as to a lack of rain. The crisis has hit rural and urban Indians alike.
"Over 60% of nearly 17,000 groundwater wells monitored to check ground water level showed a decline compared to the average level of the last 10 years," said Kishore Chandra Naik, chairman of India's Central Ground Water Board. "The decline is because of extraction, whatever may be the purpose for it," Naik said, warning some wells would eventually dry up.
"There is no rain, so there is no work on farmlands, and no money," said 19-year-old Ashwini Galphade, "How can we afford water?"
India uses more ground water than any other country, a problem successive governments have failed to tackle, said campaigner Himanshu Thakkar.
"We use more groundwater than what China and the United States collectively use. Countries like the U.S. identify and protect their groundwater recharge zones. What have we done?" Thakkar said.
"Bangalore has gone from being the city of lakes to the city of concrete. Because of this, all the water has disappeared." Chandra Shekhar said the 59-year-old retired engineer. "They are all gone now. They have been consumed by buildings and more buildings." Bangalore, which had more than 260 lakes in 1960, now has about 80 - and most of those are ecologically dead.
Bangalore's population has more than doubled to about 12 million since 2001 and is predicted to hit 20 million by 2031. Officials admit that city authorities, unprepared for the speed of the city's tech boom, did not adequately plan for Bangalore's growing water needs. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) is the main agency that manages drinking water - but it can provide it to only about 60% of the city. One of the biggest difficulties, he said, is that much of the water comes from the Cauvery River more than 100 km (60 miles) away. To get to Bangalore, the water must be pumped uphill, at a cost of $6 million a month in electricity. Then, on the way to homes, more than 20% is lost to leaks from old and corroded pipes and storage units, he said.
For now, much of the shortage is met by private traders. But as well operators drill deeper and deeper to find water, the price per tank has tripled over the last 15 years. One tanker company owner said this year he had to dig a borehole well nearly 2,000 feet (610 m) deep - about 10 times deeper than a decade ago - to ensure enough water for customers. "What is happening now is groundwater mining, not extraction," with supplies unlikely to recover, said Avinash Mishra, lead author of a study published last year by the National Institution for Transforming India. The study by the government-run policy think tank found that India, Asia's third-largest economy, was "suffering from the worst water crisis in its history".
Mishra, who is working on a follow-up report on water in India, said a "business-as-usual attitude and lack of political will" threaten Bangalore's ability to deal with growing water threats.