Climate change is bringing rising sea levels and increased flooding to some cities around the world and drought and water shortages to others. For the 11 million inhabitants of Chennai, it’s both. India’s sixth-largest city gets an average of about 1,400mm (55 inches) of rainfall a year, more than twice the amount that falls on London and almost four times the level of Los Angeles. Yet in 2019 it hit the headlines for being one of the first major cities in the world to run out of water—trucking in 10 million liters a day to hydrate its population. This year, it had the wettest January in decades.

Doctors Forced to Buy Water For Surgery as India Drought Worsens
Water tank operators refill vehicles at a government-run station in Chennai on July 4, 2019, after all the city’s main reservoirs ran dry.
Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

The ancient south Indian port has become a case study in what can go wrong when industrialization, urbanization and extreme weather converge and a booming metropolis paves over its flood plain to satisfy demand for new homes, factories and offices.