Government says 330 million people are suffering from water shortages after monsoons fail
An armed guard at a reservoir in Tikamgarh in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Photograph: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images
Monday 2 May 2016 08.38 BST / Last modified on Monday 2 May 2016 09.40 BST
As young boys plunge into a murky dam to escape the blistering afternoon sun, armed guards stand vigil at one of the few remaining water bodies in a state hit hard by India’s crippling drought.
Desperate farmers from a neighbouring state regularly attempt to steal water from the Barighat dam, forcing authorities in central Madhya Pradesh to protect it with armed guards to ensure supplies.
India is officially in the grip of its worst water crisis in years, with the government saying that about 330 million people, or a quarter of the population, are suffering from drought after the last two monsoons failed.
“Water is more precious than gold in this area,” Purshotam Sirohi, who was hired by the local municipality to protect the dam, in Tikamgarh district, told AFP.
“We are protecting the dam round the clock.”
An Indian villager walks between rocks as he crosses a depleted reservoir in Tikamgarh in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Photograph: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images
But the security measures cannot stop the drought from ravaging the dam, with officials saying it holds just one month of reserves.
Four reservoirs in Madhya Pradesh have already dried up, leaving more than a million people with inadequate water and forcing authorities to bring in supplies using trucks.
Almost a 100,000 residents in Tikamgarh get piped water for just two hours every fourth day, while municipal authorities have ordered new bore wells to be dug to meet demand.
But it may not be enough, with officials saying the groundwater level has receded more than 100 feet (30 metres) owing to less than half the average annual rainfall in the past few years.
“The situation is really critical, but we are trying to provide water to everyone,” Laxmi Giri Goswami, chairwoman of Tikamgarh municipality, told AFP.
“We pray to rain gods for mercy,” she said.
A man stands on a parched lake bed as he removes dead fish and rescues the surviving ones in Ahmadabad, India. Photograph: Ajit Solanki/AP
In the nearby village of Dargai Khurd, only one of 17 wells has water.
With temperatures hovering around 45C, its 850 residents fear they may soon be left thirsty.
“If it dries up, we won’t have a drop of water to drink,” said Santosh Kumar, a local villager.
Farmers across India rely on the monsoon – a four-month rainy season which starts in June – to cultivate their crops, as the country lacks a robust irrigation system.
Two weak monsoons have resulted in severe water shortages and crop losses in as many as 10 states, prompting extreme measures including curfews near water sources and water trains sent to the worst-affected regions.
Many farmers are now moving to cities and towns to work as labourers to support their families.
At a scruffy, makeshift camp in north Mumbai, in one of the worst-affected states, dozens of migrants who have fled their drought-stricken villages queue to fill plastic containers with water.
Pots are lined up to be filled with drinking water at a slum in Mumbai. Photograph: Rajanish Kakade/AP
Migrants from rural areas usually come to the city in January or February to get jobs on construction sites, but people were still arriving in March and April.
“There are some 300-350 families here. That’s a total of more than 1,000 people,” said Sudhir Rane, a volunteer running the camp in Mumbai’s Ghatkopar suburb. “There is a drought and there is no water back home so more families have come here this year.”
Families are allocated a small space in the dusty wasteland, where rickety tented homes are made from wooden posts and tarpaulin sheets.
“We had no choice but to come here. There was no water, no grain, no work. There was nothing to eat and drink. What could we do?” said 70-year-old Manubai Patole. “We starved for five days. At least here we are getting food.”
Weather forecasters in New Delhi this month predicted an above-average monsoon, offering a ray of hope for the country’s millions of farmers and their families.
But many, like Gassiram Meharwal from Bangaye village in Madhya Pradesh, are not optimistic as they struggle to cultivate their crops.
Meharwal’s two-acre farm has suffered three wheat crop failures in as many years, costing him an estimated 100,000 rupees ($1,500 or £1,000).
“Our fields are doomed, they have almost turned into concrete,” he said.
Thousands of acres of land in his village go uncultivated and fears are mounting for the cattle, which face a shortage of fodder.
Desperate for income, 32-year-old Meharwal, who supports eight members of his family including his children and younger brothers, left to work as a labourer in the city of Gwalior, four hours away.
“There is no guarantee that it will rain this year. Predictions are fine but no one comes to your help when the crops fail,” he said.
“It is better to use your energy breaking stones.”