Much of India has been struck by drought. Groundwater, the source of 40% of India’s water needs, is depleting at an unsustainable rate, Niti Aayog, a governmental thinktank, said in a 2018 report. Twenty-one Indian cities – including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad – are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, and 40% of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030, the report said.
India's capital Delhi recorded its highest-ever temperature of 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit) on Tuesday, while Churu in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, temperatures reached as high as 51C. Less than 250 miles from the country’s commercial capital, Mumbai, village after village lies deserted. Estimates suggest up to 90% of the area’s population has fled, leaving the sick and elderly to fend for themselves in the face of a water crisis that shows no sign of abating. Wells and handpumps have run dry. The acute water shortage has devastated villagers’ agriculture-based livelihood. Crops have withered and died, leaving livestock starving and with little to drink. Major crops, including maize, soya, cotton, sweet lime, pulses and groundnuts – drivers of the local economy – have suffered. Scientists predict that as temperatures continue to rise with global heating and populations grow, the region will experience harsher water shortages.
"This is the worst heatwave ever. In 2015, the heatwave was recorded in nine states, this year the forecast is 23," said Anup Kumar Srivastava, drought and heatwave expert at the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). More cities are also struggling with the heat than in previous years with many recording temperature above 45C, Srivastava said.
By the end of May, 43% of India was experiencing drought, with failed monsoon rains seen as the primary reason. The country has seen widespread drought every year since 2015, with the exception of 2017. With 80% of districts in Karnataka and 72% in Maharashtra hit by drought and crop failure, the 8 million farmers in these two states are struggling to survive. More than 6,000 tankers supply water to villages and hamlets in Maharashtra daily, as conflict brews between the two states over common water resources. About 20,000 villages in the state of Maharashtra are grappling with a severe drinking water crisis, with no water left in 35 major dams. In 1,000 smaller dams, water levels are below 8%. The rivers that feed the dams have been transformed into barren, cracked earth.
In the city of Beed, clean drinking water has run out and households do not have enough water to wash clothes, clean dishes or flush the toilet. Hospitals are filling up with people suffering from dehydration – and gastrointestinal disease from drinking contaminated water. Residents who can afford it pay private water tankers the equivalent of £3 for 1,000 litres of water. Many end up in hospital as a result – even cows refuse to drink the muddy and salty liquid that has been dredged from the bottom of exhausted dams and lakes in the region. For many of the district’s population of 2.2 million, of which 240,000 live in Beed itself, their day starts by searching for water from borewells. Others have to plead with their neighbours for water.
“Over the last one-and-half months, there has been a 50% rise in the number of patients suffering from diarrhoea, gastritis etc,” said Sandeep Deshmukh, a doctor at the Beed Civil hospital. He blamed contamination for the rise in water-borne diseases. “We have appealed to the people to boil drinking water,” Deshmukh said.
It is the poorest workers bearing the brunt of this “natural” disaster. Workers on farms, construction sites or on salt pans are worst hit by the heatwave, labour rights campaigners said. Some Indian states such as the southern state of Kerala issued sunstroke warnings and announced noon breaks for workers.
Officials at the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).
said its advisory on reducing eight-hour work schedules by 20% during summer months was being implemented for government workers who are paid daily rates under its national rural employment guarantee scheme.
But those working for private employers on farms, building sites and brick kilns had no such protection, labour rights campaigners said.
Migrant workers are made to work even in the sweltering heat," said Geetha Ramakrishnan of Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam, a construction workers' union. "Apart from construction workers, those working in salt pans or near furnaces in factories are also feeling the impact," Ramakrishnan said.
Long spells of unemployment mean that many of the poorest workers continue to seek work throughout the heatwave. "I have been digging wells. It has never been this hot ever. I don't get work for half a month, so I take up whatever comes my way. I have no choice," said, Nirmal Ahirwal in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.