India

Drought-hit India struggles to quench its thirst

By Thomas Kutty Abraham

NATWARGADH, India (Reuters) - Ten-year-old Bharti pushes herself through a swarm of people, unmindful of the sweltering sun or the frenetic crowd that tries to beat her to the edge of a well for a bucket of filthy water.

Reservoirs, ponds and wells in the western Indian state of Gujarat dried up seven months ago and villagers like Bharti jostle around empty wells for hours, often in temperatures that go up to 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit), waiting for tankers that bring muddy water and dump it into the wells.

Large swathes of India are reeling under a scorching summer and nearly 900 people have died in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh due to heatstrokes and dehydration in the last 17 days.

Residents of Bharti's Natwargadh village said the government water tankers were the only hope for the region, which has been hit by the worst drought in more than a decade.

"If I don't fight with these elders for space, my family will go without water," Bharti (eds: one name) said after she had balanced herself precariously on the thin brick wall of the well and filled a bucket with the help of nylon ropes.

"There is no guarantee of another water tanker today."

Authorities said as the summer peaked, the picture was grim in about 7,000 villages in Gujarat's Saurashtra region and an estimated 25 million people were suffering the consequences of last year's failed monsoon.

In the western desert state of Rajasthan, authorities said at least eight trains transported water daily across the state and supply had been rationed to once every two days in many areas.

Scanty rainfall in Saurashtra has hit crops such as cotton, groundnut and maize but some villagers said that all that they wanted now was clean drinking water.

"The water supplied by the government is very saline. Many people in the village have complained of stomach ailments," said villager Ganshyam Unjha.

The water scarcity has forced hundreds of villagers in Saurashtra to migrate to regions less affected by the drought and groups of men, women and children moving on camel-back from village to village in search of water is a common sight.

Authorities and voluntary groups in the region say the solution to the crisis lay in extending the Narmada river pipeline network which currently supplies water to large parts of the state.

"Places with perennial water shortage will have to be connected with the Narmada pipelines," Sanjay Modi, a senior officer heading drought relief operations in Saurashtra, told Reuters.

"This might take a while but that's the only solution."

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