Why water scarcity never ceases to haunt the women of Chennai

Intermittent rains in Chennai may have eased the situation but water continues to be a scarce resource. And across the city, regardless of social class, women invariably bear the brunt and are expected to make arrangements to quench the family's thirst.

It has been raining on and off in Chennai over the past few weeks. And yet, 59-year-old P Mary from Saidapet has a recurring nightmare waking her up in the middle of the night every other day. In her dream, she is invariably exerting herself on the lever of the hand pump. After what seems like endless minutes of strenuous labour, water drips from the tap, drop by drop, a pale yellow colour. Reluctantly, she empties the pot, for there’s a perceptible stench emanating from the water. Now, she has to again pump for another five minutes in order to get some water having less colour and reek.

[The video above shows Mary trying to collect water for her family; it was shot in the peak of summer when Chennai was in the midst of an unprecedented water crisis.]

It is not surprising that Mary is haunted by these images so often, for this had been her reality not so long ago during the merciless Chennai summer, as the entire world watched the city dry up completely. After labouring at this exercise for more than 20 minutes every day, Mary would be able to fill five pots of relatively less-contaminated water for her four-member family.

“That was enough only until I came back from work in the evenings. I would later fetch clean water (Rs 10 per pot) from the tankers to use for cooking and drinking,” she says.

Besides doing thankless, unpaid household chores — cooking, washing, cleaning and taking care of her grandchildren, Mary works as a maid in a house, and it fetches her Rs 5000 a month. Ask her why the men in her family do not help her out and pat comes the answer, “My daughter-in-law helps me in fetching water and in household chores. My son works for twelve hours in a company. Also, is it fair to make men do this?”

The long haul

Mary’s statement speaks volumes about the normalisation of gender-specific roles in society, especially when it comes to procuring water. Scores of working women, housewives, schoolgirls and elderly women belonging to the economically backward, middle and lower-middle classes of society take up the responsibility of fetching water for the family. School and college-going girls skip classes to help out their mothers in fetching water.

“I skipped the afternoon classes in June, only to return home and fetch water from the tankers. My family relied on me for getting that water,” says Gowri S, a resident of Ayanavaram. Her mother works at a textile industry and despite being jobless, the father is not expected to arrange for water for the family.  

Woes multiply during peak summer when women have to stay awake at night to fetch water from tankers and draw water from wells and pumps. This hectic routine wears them out completely, with women developing back pain and posture-related problems.

“I have been carrying 15 pots of water every day for the past four months. I have developed a persistent pain in my shoulders and back. When I have experienced the pain myself, how can I ask my husband or children to do such a strenuous task?” asks Shanthi J, a 38-year-old resident of Saidapet slum. It is ironic how this slum that was submerged in the floods of December 2015 keeps struggling for water now.

Struggle of water collectors

Contrary to what many may feel, this trend is not limited to the urban poor alone. Catherine J, a resident of L D G Road at Saidapet, an area with a predominantly middle-class population, quit a decent job in Cognizant three months ago. “Water scarcity is not the only reason that prompted me to take this decision,” says Catherine, in a low voice, “but it is a factor that tankers come at odd times. There were days when it came at 11.30 pm and I would carry five pots of water to my house on the first floor,” she said. Late July, Catherine and her family shifted to a nearby locality, where there is piped water supply.

Rains have not improved the situation, said L D G Road residents. Fetching water is a woman’s job here, just like in the Saidapet slum. In this locality of 100 families, barely two men come to fetch water when the tanker arrives. What is worse is that these men won’t bother to wait in the queues! Oft-heard pleas such as “Aamble nikkuraru maa, vitturumaa (A man is standing, let him get it)” explain the privilege enjoyed by the ‘superior’ gender.

When we asked a few men and women at Sathyavani Muthunagar near Chennai Central why men do not share the work, the response was more or less the same: “They feel embarrassed to stand in the queue and carry water. It is after all a woman’s job.”

Old or young, the job of water procurement falls inevitably on women. A scene at Sathyavani Muthunagar near Chennai Central.

Health matters

On Appaswamy Street in Chetpet, Saritha, a middle aged woman, is seen carrying two pots – one supported against her waist and the other tightly clasped with her hand. Along the journey home, she puts the heavy pots down from to time, takes a deep breath, and then resumes her ‘homeward journey’. She repeats this at least thrice as she walks the 400-metre distance from the tanker to her house. Saritha has to do four such trips daily.

“It doesn’t end here. I have to carry water to the house I work in. My back pain is so bad that I cannot sit straight for even half an hour,” said Saritha, who despite her health condition, doesn’t expect her son or husband to help her.

Such gender imbalance comes out clearly in the findings of a survey by the Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC), one of the members of City of 1000 Tanks. Conducted at Chitra Nagar and Kotturpuram on 250 women, the study, reveals that a woman spends 3 to 6 hours a day fetching water from hand pumps and metro water tankers. This leads to alarming consequences:

  • A majority of women above 40 years have joint pains and Arthritis because of the herculean task of carrying water pots to upper floors.
  • Elderly, disabled and pregnant women have to bear an additional cost of Rs 10-20 for every pot as they seek hired help to carry the pots.
  • Water-borne diseases and skin infections affecting legs and feet are very commonly prevalent among women.

The count of women is distinctively more than men in all queues for water in the city. Pic: Laasya Shekhar

Elusive solutions

Gender imbalance is so deep-rooted in society and goes back so far back in history that the victims are not even aware of it.  “The unwritten gender norms that prevail in patriarchal society thrust the burden of all household work on women. It worsens in situations of water scarcity when the women are ‘expected’ to meet the needs of the family. They are forced to compete for scarce resources, leading to an adverse impact on their safety, health and time,” says Vanessa Peter, a policy researcher at IRCDUC.

Tiny steps taken at an individual level can bring change, however. “Understanding of roles in a household is always based on convenience. The struggle of women is real and unfair,” says Sudharsan Padmanabhan, Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras “Women should value their work and contribution. They should demand participation from other family members. Men should consider it a way to bond with women. Why not make household chores a fun activity?”

History also reveals the persistent gender imbalance. “Since there were fewer women writing on social issues, there is no information about the role of women during the different social and environmental crises. However, records from the 18th century do show that women and girl children were mostly in charge of jobs such as water procurement and domestic chores,” says Nivedita Louis, a historian.

Women are generally hit disproportionately by any environment crisis and water is just one of them. “The responsibilities of women and girl children multifold during natural calamities; they are still expected to carry out all domestic chores. They are vulnerable and it becomes tough to obtain specific humanitarian aid for them, due to the patriarchal system,” says Sherin Bosko, a gender specialist.


  1. Rajendra says:

    Don’t view everything through the prism of gender equality. Menfolk of Chennai may not carry water for the family. But don’t jump to conclusion immediately that it is due to gender superiority.
    If you go deep into to see the family mechanism/system you will find Chennai menfolk doing other things for their family which are detested by the menfolk of other cities.
    Family is a very finely tuned social engineering marvel which functions relatively smoothly in India with all it’s unwritten social laws which may slightly vary from place to place. Don’t try to damage this and allow people to live in understanding.

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