As severe flooding forces millions of people from their homes in northern India, residents in the south of the country are facing a different kind of water crisis: drought. On July 12, a train carrying 2.5 million liters of water arrived in the city of Chennai. That load will provide relief to residents who have struggled with shortages for the past month, but a “Day Zero”–when piped water sources are expected to run dry–is on the horizon for 20 other cities across the country.
In the 2018 monsoon, Chennai, home to more than 8 million people, saw 55% less rainfall than average–the worst drought in 70 years. Located in the state of Tamil Nadu, Chennai was once rich in lakes and wetlands. But rapid urbanization has diminished these sources; millions of city residents now line up daily in sweltering heat to collect small rations of water. Some people have turned to open defecation as a way to reduce water usage, or are reusing dirty water for cooking and cleaning.
According to an Indian government think tank, the countrywide drought has left 600 million people dealing with high to extreme water shortages. Chennai joins the long list of cities around the world facing such emergencies, which have been made more likely by the unpredictable weather patterns caused by climate change. Cape Town, Mexico City and São Paulo have also faced a Day Zero in recent years.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently promised piped water for all Indian homes by 2024. But Tamil Nadu officials have come under heavy criticism for failing to plan for Chennai’s current water shortage. Protests in the city and across the state have taken place, leading to arrests in some cases. While water providers say that four “water trains” will service the city every day, residents remain skeptical, particularly knowing that several other cities across the country are heading in the same direction.
This appears in the July 29, 2019 issue of TIME.
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