Geographies in Depth

Indian cities are running out of water

Women fetch water from an opening made by residents at a dried-up lake in Chennai, India, June 11, 2019. REUTERS/P. Ravikumar - RC1B21F03240

Image: REUTERS/P. Ravikumar

Johnny Wood
Writer, Forum Agenda
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India

India is experiencing one of the worst droughts in its history, with soaring temperatures threatening crops, livestock and people. Thousands of villagers have abandoned their homes in a desperate search for water as the crisis has left village pumps and wells dry.

The drought has also depleted four reservoirs that supply the country’s sixth largest city, Chennai, with a population of more than four million. Residents are having to queue for water that's brought into the city in trucks, while businesses are suffering.

As of 10 June, around 44% of the country was affected by various degrees of drought, due to a heatwave that has seen Delhi record its highest ever June temperature of 48℃. While south of the capital, the Rajasthan city of Churu saw highs of more than 50℃, making it one of the hottest places on Earth.

Around 600 million people are dealing with high-to-extreme water shortages, according to a 2018 report by NITI Aayog, a policy think tank for the Indian government.

Forced to flee

Many wealthy Indians retreat to the usually cool hills of Himachal Pradesh to avoid the summer heat, but even in this summer retreat temperatures have reached nearly 45℃.

One of the worst affected regions surrounds the town of Beed, in the western state of Maharashtra. Here, villages lay deserted as drinking water has run out and there is no water to wash clothes and dishes or flush toilets, forcing residents to flee.

Tanks arrive every few days with emergency supplies, but there are not enough to go round.

Prolonged extreme heat has devastated the crops that form the backbone of local agricultural economies. Helpless farmers have little option but to leave maise, soya, sweet limes, and ground nuts withering in the fields.

And livestock fare little better, with goats and sheep starving from lack of food and water.

For those who can afford to pay for water that’s trucked in daily, there is some respite. But this water is taken from the bottom of muddy dams and lakes, which is often contaminated and can cause gastrointestinal diseases.

Image: NITI Aayog

Water shortage

Villagers look to the monsoon rains to end the drought, but the rains are late this year. Some years they don’t arrive at all, or bring less rainfall than expected.

By 2030, it’s predicted that 40% of the population will have no access to drinking water - and 21 cities, including Chennai and New Delhi, will run out of groundwater, impacting 100 million people, according to NITI Aayog.

Climate change is altering global weather patterns, with devastating consequences for some subsistence farmers, whose livelihoods depend on successfully harvesting crops. Rising temperatures increase the severity and frequency of droughts, as well as other extreme weather events like floods, tropical cyclones and dust storms.

Image: NASA

Human activity has warmed the world by about 1.1℃ since pre-industrial times, with the past five years having been the warmest ever recorded.

Urgent action is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperatures well below the 2℃ target set by the Paris Agreement, which would help the plight of India’s farmers and population as a whole.

While the world finds ways of addressing the global threat of climate change, for many in India, droughts, floods and violent storms remain everyday risks.

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Related topics:
Geographies in DepthNature and BiodiversityClimate Action
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