A farmer walks through a cascade of browned banana leaves, only a few spots of green visible, and declares that his crop for the season has been lost.
A group of women in brightly colored saris rush to surround a water tanker, carrying numerous brightly colored water jugs which they hurriedly fill up, carry back to their homes, and then rush back to refill.
A young boy plays on the ground near his mother who fills tubs of water for cattle that stand under rows of yellow tarps.
Such are the scenes in Maharashtra, a state in western India, which has been facing an ongoing drought since last year that has the potential to affect millions in India's second largest state.
India is no stranger to water shortages—the country has experienced three major droughts in the last 10 years alone. But unlike in previous years, the Maharashtra drought appears to be man-made, or at least made more severe by poor policies and at times, corrupt practices. In particular, much of the water pumped through the state’s thousands of government-run dams gets diverted from local irrigation to big industries and foreign companies.
And with such a high demand for water, corruption is common. Prayas, an Indian disaster relief charity, estimates that as much as 64 percent of the water slated for local farmers was siphoned off, some to companies with close political ties to the government. Practices such as this have slashed the region’s per capita water availability by 70 percent since 1950, even as the population continues to rise by some 18 million a year. And with climate change producing more extreme and less predictable weather, small farmers are increasingly dependent on a dwindling and erratic supply of water. Warmer temperatures tend to aggravate evaporation at water sources, and negatively impact soil fertility while increasing erosion.
For small farmers, the drought could mean losing their crops and therefore their income for the year, leaving them deep in debt. The government has set up numerous animal fodder camps throughout the districts that have been hardest hit including Solapur, Beed, and Jalna. These sites allow local farmers to bring their livestock (the majority of which are cattle) where food and water are provided for the animals. The farmers, along with their families stay at the camp with the livestock for months, often living in makeshift housing constructed like teepees or underneath tarps. Many have children who are forced to miss school. Sittal Thambe, a farmer who has two young children and is staying in an animal fodder camp near Ashti in Beed district, states that the displacement has caused a lot of "suffering and problems—the people and the cattle are in the same situation with not enough water." Small communities have sprung up at these sites, with stalls selling food and services such as barbers. Farmers are able to sell the milk from the cows but since that is the sole source of income, finances tend to be constrained. Farmer suicide is a common occurrence as debt from failed crops and loans accumulate.
Some farmers, lacking access to the government farm camps, choose to stay on their land and invest in alternative water sources if local rivers and reservoirs have run dry. They can pay to dig bore wells on their land or truck in water if they have available funds to do so. However some question the sustainability of bore wells as they lower the watershed level and are not seen as a long term or sustainable solution. Other farmers choose to give up farming and migrate to urban areas such as Pune or Mumbai where they most likely live in slum conditions while trying to start a new livelihood. Migrant laborers are also negatively impacted since their daily wages are typically paid out by the kilogram. Since crops like sugarcane have declined, they are forced to live on less or find alternative means of income.
Those less severely affected are people in rural areas and smaller villages that now rely on water tanker deliveries instead of wells, hand pumps, and dams which are empty. In many communities, there is no set schedule for the water deliveries so when tankers arrive, there is a mad dash to collect as many bucketfuls as possible. Some water tankers dump the water in already constructed wells and boreholes. Women (traditionally the ones to collect water) then use buckets with a rope tied to them to collect the water. Tragically, there have been cases where women have fallen into the holes and died while collecting water in this manner.
Pramod Chinchure, who works on a local watershed project in Maharashtra’s Solapur district, believes that the government is failing to include locals on decisions regarding water usage and drought aid. He adds that there now seems be "a break with natural systems."
Wildlife is also disturbed, in the worst cases dying from lack of water. Animals such as monkeys are forced to seek out human-made water sources instead of natural sources like rivers or lakes. At the Ellora caves, a tourist site near Aurangabad, site caretakers have been purposely leaving on outdoor faucets where monkeys are now congregating to drink. The drought, it has been observed, shifts their natural habits while also increasing the potential for dangerous interactions with humans.
That the drought is seen as man-made has given locals both hope and a sense of frustration. Protests advocating for drought aid have brought some attention to the dire situation in some villages. It has also prompted steps for altering water use from non-essential industries to necessary uses such as drinking water. However there is still a sense of helplessness as the government and state leaders fail to disentangle themselves from corrupt deals relating to water and land rights, giving preference to larger companies, and ultimately failing to recognize the struggle of farmers and local villagers living day-to-day under the drought conditions. On a global scale, as extreme weather patterns continue to cause instability, a more collective effort will be needed to effectively address both the causes and the consequences of climate change.