A historic drought in India is so severe that it’s now visible from space

Click to play video: 'Residents protest, pray as water crisis grips Indian cities'
Residents protest, pray as water crisis grips Indian cities
WATCH: Residents of the drought-hit Indian cities of Chennai and Madurai protested and prayed on Monday in response to the region's ongoing water crisis – Jun 24, 2019

A historic drought in Chennai, the sixth-largest city in India, is so severe that it’s now visible from space.

The city’s 4.6 million citizens are rationing every drop of water, restaurants are closing early and companies are scaling back their operations as Chennai tries to survive a heat wave with 99 per cent less water than it had at the same time last year. The state government is shipping in water on trucks, but those trucks can’t replace the now dried-up lakes that once fed the city.

Everyone is asking the same question: When will the monsoons start?

Satellite footage released earlier this month shows the city’s four reservoirs, including nearby Lake Puzhal, have severely shrunk since last June. The reservoirs have a capacity of 318.8 billion litres, but they are down to a collective 651 million litres, according to government data reported by the Hindustan Times. The reservoirs have been reduced to 0.2 per cent of their capacity, according to state government data.

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The city typically relies on the heavy rainfall of monsoon season to replenish its water supply, which comes from four lakes and groundwater reservoirs in the region. The monsoons usually start in June but they’ve been delayed this year, leaving citizens with little water amid blistering temperatures that exceed 40 C each day.

The problem dates back to last year, when Chennai saw a major shortfall in its monthly rainfall. The city received 80 per cent less rain than average in December alone, according to India’s weather office.

Temperatures in Chennai typically peak in May and June, around the same time that rainfall starts picking up. February, March and April are typically drought season, while the heaviest monsoon rains come in October, November and December.

Women fetch water from an opening made by residents at a dried-up lake in Chennai, India, June 11, 2019. REUTERS/P. Ravikumar

The city has struggled to meet its water needs for the last few years. A government think tank warned last year that Chennai is one of 21 Indian cities that could run out of groundwater by 2020.

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Officials from Tamil Nadu, the state government, say they’ve been trucking in more water to support the city each year.

“In 2017, we were supplying 450 litres of water,” S.P. Velumani, a minister for the municipal administration, told Reuters. “Now, we are supplying 525 million litres per day.”

She says the city needs a minimum of 525 million litres per day just to get by.

Velumani says last year’s monsoon season delivered 62 per cent less rain in Chennai compared to 2017.

“Chennai’s main water reservoirs have gone bone dry,” tweeted Srini Swaminathan, a teacher who photographed the drought from an aircraft on June 17.

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Chennai is a major automotive manufacturing centre, as well as a popular destination for medical tourism.

The city is feeling the worst of a country-wide problem, as India deals with a 43 per cent shortfall in monsoon rains.

Monsoons usually bring heavy rain to two-thirds of the country by mid-June, meteorologists told The Associated Press. However, the rains have only arrived in less than half that area.

The rain is expected to spread across more of the country within the next 10 days.

Forecasters say Chennai will begin to see light rain this week. However, that rainfall is not expected to exceed a few millimetres.

—With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

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