Department of Engineering Geology and Hydrogeology of the RWTH Aachen University

cultural and religious exposure to water on the basis of different social systems – Chennai, India

Many cities in India are expected to reach dimensions of megacities within the next years. Vital urban services such as water supply and water removal have to be expanded to serve larger areas and growing human populations due to the explosion of the population in the cities. Source areas for drinking water get degraded, polluted or are obsolete due to incompatible land uses and population density within urban areas.

The main topic of this project is the cultural and religious handling with water resources and its possible influences on the water supply due to the water usage in Chennai. Therefore, the differences between urban areas in Chennai, such as slums or the middle and upper class, and the temple areas will be investigated.


Chennai via google maps

Let’s have a closer look at the case study Chennai. With a population of 8.5 million, Chennai is one of the five biggest cities of the Indian subcontinent and the capital of the South Indian state Tamil Nadu. As a metropolis, Chennai houses a number of people from different religion and cultures. People live together in nearly perfect harmony and religious tolerance showing respect and value to other religions. With around 80 %, Hinduism is the main religion in this city followed by approx. 9 % Muslims, approx. 8 % Christians and approx. 3% of ethno-religious communities (

For investigating the interaction between religious and cultural water use and the change of society, interviews and survey had been done. Around 200 interviews were carried out in form of questionnaires. Therefore, a translator was needed which has been found after a few days of meeting potential candidates.

How do people deal with their water availability?

Slum Adyar River

black barrels at the roof top

In the first 4 weeks, the slum areas around the Adyar River were visited. Entering these areas with a native is better than going alone and you will get a cordially welcome with a Chai. After explaining the project, the inhabitants were very excited and answered every single question.

water pump

water pumps connected to the water pipes

Talking about water shortage was no deal because there was none. Since the last legislative period, every single household got a water pump and consequently 24/7 water supply. Even some dumpsters were arranged at some side roads. Some of the houses have big black barrels at the roof top to save water using it after a few days or weeks. The Hindus believe that the sun has the power to purify the water inside the barrels.

trench slum

open trench at the beach

But not every slum has such benefits. A look at the slums along the beaches reveals huge differences. Instead of a canal system, they have open trenches and the waste water drained away at the beach. Water tanks will be filled every single day, but they try to save water in big barrels and the garbage is going into rusted dumpsters which will be emptied every day.

Inland, along the river, there will be a canal system and water pumps again and dumpsters, that will be emptied too. But even if the residents know that there is a dumpster or a canal system, they use the back yard or river bank to throw it all away. They got some public toilets, but if one of them is broken, they still use the river bank. For those who don’t have an own water pump, big barrels (à 500 litre) are available which are refilled daily.

The slum residents know about the water shortage and know how to deal with water scarcity, but there are still people using as much water as possible.

middle class houses

middle class houses

The last weeks, the people of the middle and upper class areas have been interviewed. The translator was not needed as all of them were able to speak English. Along the different areas, there were not such significant discrepancies as in the slum areas. All of the houses were connected to the canal system and they got water through pipes or via water pumps connected to the ground water. Although they use dumpsters, they still throw the trash beside the road. From my own experiences, there was a water loss around midday and late afternoon. As the water scarcity is enormous during the summer time, people of the middle and upper class save water in underground basins or barrels beside the house. They try to use as less as possible because they’ve been enlightened about the water shortage.

How exactly does culture reflect in the water consumption and does religion truly play a role?

Some of the areas along the river bank are properties of the Hindu community and temple. Around 40 years ago, they were able to use the river water for religious purposes. Nowadays, they just use the temple basins for that. Water is used daily, but they are not able to say how much is needed.Most of the Hindus use water to clean the ground in front of their houses and to draw Rangoli or Kolam symbols every morning. Some of the houses have a small holy shrine which is washed nearly twice a week. An interviewed owner of a fruit stand clears the ground every morning as well.For one Hindu household, it’s around 25-50 litre, measured as 1 bucket is 25 litre. For cleaning a shrine, around 50-75 litre are needed and around 150 litre for a temple.

Concerning the Christians and Moslems, there is no religious purpose of water such as the Hindus.

Asking the citizens about getting help or helping each other during water less seasons, there are huge differences. Without getting any help from the high society, slum residents help each other and even help the poorer. The middle and upper class inhabitants are not that helpful. Around 65 % of the interviewed people would like to help the poorer people. The other 35 % are nearly angry about the better water situation inside the slums and they are not willing to help. About cleaning the river, everyone would support, but no one wants to start. Not even priests want to help. In their opinion, it’s the fault of the slum residents and it would be best to remove the slums and their inhabitants from the river bank.

Summarised, there is a difference between the religions and their water management, as Hindu using more water for religious purposes. Beside this fact, all use nearly the same amount of water for showering, washing clothes or gardening. All of the population knows about the risks of contaminated water or water shortage, but they still have to learn more about sustainable handling and saving the world’s most important resource.


Journey over the Sky….. The beginning

skyIt was banal but pleasant morning when I and my roommate Abhay were sipping tea at our terrace when our ears were deafened by the sound of the roaring plane above our apartment which was about to land in the Patna Airport. It was a constant reminder to me that I haven’t travelled abroad. I said “Abhi tak nahi gaya hu yar” (I haven’t travelled abroad yet) and he assured me saying “you will definitely go”. Believe it or not, in the same week my eyes gleamed to see a notice at our college stating an opportunity to go to Germany for a funded research internship. I never wanted to slip this chance so I knuckled down and submitted all the documents the same day, required for screening and selection of the students. A week after, which almost felt like years of waiting, I received a mail from Hemant Wakode. My heart started pounding heavily in joy and ecstasy to see the invitation letter to Aachen. Read more »

Field work in Chennai

The biggest challenge we had was to take the surveys in the slums. Because there is nobody able to speak English like in the middle and upper class. So it was very important to find a good translator and in particular a translator who is able to get in touch with the people in the slums, so that they open their mind. After a few days of searching and meeting a lot of potential translators we found such a person and our efforts were rewarded.



Canal next to a slum

When we entered the slums for the first time, it was like entering another world and nothing seems real. But it was a friendly and warm hearted world and the people there are quiet amazing. Although the people don`t have much here they share everything. After our guide explained that we come from Germany and we are doing a survey about water use and water consumption, the ice was broken and they were very happy to see us. Fast we gained the attraction of the people since in this areas they don`t know white people but because of this attraction we had a big problem. We had to ask everyone separately elsewise everyone wants to say something to the questions and we were not able to get correct ans
wers. The people were mostly open minded and gave willingly answers to the questions although usually the first question was whether we are from the government or if we want to build new houses for them.  As such, once can say the slums that we have visited have water the whole day. Mostly it is tank water which is delivered by water transporters from metro water or the cooperation. The water for this tanks is delivered daily. In addition, pipes are present that ensure a constant supply of water and also groundwater pumps. One of the biggest problems is that the groundwater is salty, so it can`t be used for many things. This happened due to the fast population growth in Chennai and also because of the tsunami in 2004. This problem can be found everywhere in Chennai and there is no solution.It is important to say that all people in Chennai have electricity and that they have to pay for this. In the slums nobody has to pay water taxes but in the middle and upper class they have to do it. In the slums they have only to pay for the can water which is mostly used as drinking water. If they don`t want to pay for it they drink the tank water, which is boiled for partial advance or is drunk directly without boiling. We were told by the people form the middle and upper class that the water supply is better in some cases in the slums than in this classes because there is permanent availability of water especially in summer.  In the slums you can find a catastrophically waste management because most of the trash is thrown in the river and also the swage is directed there. So it looks like there is no waste management in the slums. In the middle and upper class this gets better and you can find sewage canals and also the garbage disposal. Nevertheless it is important to mention that the understanding of cleanliness and sustainability exists but is not implemented in Chennai. Forty years ago the rivers where clean here and could be used as an drinking water source, the most of the slums where build next to the rivers because of that. But when the industrialization starts the water gets so heavily polluted that one further use is inconceivable. In our discussions with the people we got to know that the government hospitals are free to use for everyone but it is not well known in the slums. Chennai has no school fees, so that everyone can get education for free.


trash thrown into the river

All in all I can say that in Chennai a lot of education work needs to be done to strengthen people’s awareness of the handling with water. The population of Chennai has to learn that water is an important and infinite commodity and not to be regarded as self-evident.

Life on the IIT Madras Campus

The IIT Madras is one of the leading universities in India and one of the local cooperation partners of the University of RWTH Aachen. Due to this cooperation, the IIT Madras gave me opportunity to stay at the IIT Campus.
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Temple, Traffic and Safari

Kapaleeswarar Temple One of the most beautiful places of interest you have to visit in Chennai is the Kapaleeshwarar Temple, which is located in Mylapore and build in honour to the god Eeshwarar, an alias of Shiva. The legend behind this temple is the following: Brahma failed to show the due respect to Shiva. Therefore, Shiva plucked one of Brahmas heads (kapalams). Brahma came down to the side of Mylapore and installed a Lingam (symbol) to please Shiva. Another legend says that goddess Parvathi once playfully closed Shiva’s eyes which made the world fell into darkness. So Shiva cursed Parvathi to become a pea-hen and do penance here to get back her original personality. You can visit one of the four yearly festivals or one of the six daily rituals Read more »