Water water everywhere…who gets a drop to drink?

Our now closest “clean” water supply

(apologies for the unfinished version that posted early)

People tell us not to drink the city water, though some of the poorest families around us do. We run all the water we intend to drink through a ceramic water filter, and hope that is enough to make the city water safe to drink. At least when it’s at its best.

But monsoon is not the best. A couple months ago the water coming out of the city pipes tasted like pure chlorine. Not just “a little” too much chlorine, I’m talking esophagus-burning levels.

That same day newspapers reported that a quarter of the city had been getting sick due to underchlorinated water. The treatment machines were broken, and employees were guesstimating dosages by hand. Our water’s overchlorination must have been a knee-jerk reaction to blow-back from the previous underchlorination.

Water was worse than usual last week. This came straight from the pipe.

That was just the latest problem. For most of monsoon season the city supply has been visibly brown. So we joined our neighbors in carrying buckets to a local well about 50 meters from our house, waiting in line, filling up and bringing them back. It’s not as bad as it sounds – though dragging the buckets up our stairs is definitely an inconvenience, the lines aren’t too long.

Unfortunately, that close well somehow got adulterated with petrol. It took forever for me to wash the film out of our water filter. Now no one uses it, and we instead have to make our way over to a different well about 200 meters from our house. But we only have to go there when we need drinking water….or when the city supply downstairs is too muddy that you can’t even clean with it….or when the city supply stops altogether. Which happens now and then.

And even these wells, how clean are they? They are situated right below a slum…are they sealed off from our many contaminants? Who is checking?

Just like electricity, water is something that folk in the slum have to think about way more than Westerners do. Most Americans aren’t aware of how much a miracle it is that absolutely clean, trustworthy drinking water just comes out of your tap in whatever quantity you want for basically free. People are watering their lawns and filling their swimming pools with drinking water! Meanwhile, people here frequently get typhoid, amoebic dysentery, Hepatitis E, and diarrhea from contaminated water.

I would know, I’ve had all of them.

I have a strong immune system and a typhoid vaccination, so none of my issues were life threatening. But imagine what effect they have on someone with a compromised immune system and poor access to health care. Imagine what effect they have on little kids. We have to see that all the time.

It could get worse before it gets better.

In 2019, the city of Chennai in south India ran out of water. Two years of severe drought followed by a heat wave caused the reservoirs to dry up, and the city water supply simply stopped running. The poor rushed to form long lines around the working wells from as early as 4am, or wait for rationed water shipped in by the city, while the rich paid exorbitant prices for private water tankers from afar to supply their needs. Many restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that rely on a water supply had to close for the duration. Water rationing reached the point where entire slum families were limited to 8-10 gallons of water a day for all their showering, washing, and drinking needs.

"Water Crisis" Water Crisis in Cape Town _ Widad Sirkhotte _ Flickr
Water lines in Cape Town (photo by Widad Sirkhotte)

Chennai is the worst hit, but they’re not alone. Much of their state (Tamil Nadu) has been hit by water shortages, as have several other regions of India. Approximately 600 million people, or half of the country’s population, have had to ration their water at some point. And cities in other countries – most notably Cape Town, South Africa – have been hit by their own less severe water crisis.

The story of a woman who was stabbed by her neighbor over a water dispute made national news, as a symbol of how deep the crisis had become. But a side note in the story is in my mind more emblematic of the true problems.

It also drives some to crime, as G Gautham*, who lives in a posh locality of RA Puram, found out. Gautham used influence to get Metro water tankers to prioritise his house for water delivery. But there was something amiss. “The water that used to last us two weeks started getting over in two or three days. I then realised that people were stealing water from the tap near our gate,” he said. Gautham was forced to cut the water connection to the tap, and install CCTV cameras as a security measure. “I didn’t think this could happen in Chennai,” he says.

The powerful man is shocked that poor people in need could ever steal water from a rich household. The powerful man does not realize that when he uses his power to get tankers to prioritize his home, he is stealing that water from less powerful households. But because his stealing is “legal” (meaning done in concert with the other powerful people in charge) it is casually accepted, while when poor people take, it is a crime.

Global warming, pollution, and poor city management have all contributed to create the problem. But what I fear is not just the problem itself, but how society will react to it. Because all my experience tells me that when the shortages come, the wealthy will make sure that they can make due. And in those times of crisis, they will care even less if they are screwing over the poor.

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