Indian villagers desperate for water as wells and pumps run dry

October 29, 2015

Raj Kumar Jaiswal begins his day irritated. He needs water from the pump that stands in the courtyard of his home. Working the handle is a struggle; it often yields little water, or none at all.

Jaiswal, 38, lives in Pratapgarh district of southern Uttar Pradesh. He is among millions of people in this area of north-central India who face an acute groundwater shortfall because of droughts brought on by scant monsoon rains in recent years and the careless, wasteful use of water.

“I now spend most of my day thinking whether we will get enough water tomorrow. The hand pump has stopped working and I have to ride two kilometres every day to get water,” Jaiswal said. “Life has become hell. It’s an everyday challenge now.”

I come from Jaiswal’s village, and know what it is like to wrest water from the ground – fighting with the metal hand pump, the labour and strain that it takes. Even that is better than what Jaiswal and his neighbours deal with now. They must travel to nearby villages that have expensive, government-subsidized Mark II hand pumps, and bring back water over bumpy dirt roads and paths.

“You need to have connections to get an India Mark II hand pump installed at your door step. By normal process, it might take years. I have a bicycle which helps me fetch water,” said Jaiswal, a typist at the local district court.

Hot weather, a dry climate, and sandy soil – poor for retaining water – make Pratapgarh district a tough land in which to survive. In June, temperatures hit a blistering 45-47 degrees Celsius and the monsoon rains hadn’t started yet. This is the time, residents have seen over the past 10 years, when the pumps stop working because the underground water dries up further due to heat. To get them working again, people pour water into the pump to make sure it hits the right level. At that point, the pump will draw up water from the aquifer. But the trick hasn’t worked lately because the groundwater level has fallen too far for it to be effective.

People in adjacent Chitrakoot district, which is part of the Bundelkhand region, must walk for miles to get water every day. They bring whatever containers they can – buckets, glasses and so on – because they need to take home as much as they can.

“It’s hard to explain. You need to see this to feel this,” said Meera Jatav, editor of Khabar Lahariya, a Hindi rural newspaper. “(I’ve come) across incidents where people are not marrying off their daughters in villages where there is no water. They obviously don’t want their daughters to live in hell.”

Villages, which constitute mostly mud houses, become unbearably hot in Pratapgarh district. People sit outside their homes because there is usually no electricity to run an air conditioner inside. Rural roads are either mostly missing or are in a poor state, filled with dirt or mud. Most people ride bicycles. There is a highway that passes through the middle of the district and once you leave behind the main town, you can see ravines along the road. Village days are sleepy. Though there are some farmers here, most people do odd jobs and subsistence agriculture.

At one time, there was plenty of water, which people didn’t miss until the wells ran dry. And one of the reasons they ran dry was modern pumps that began to appear about a decade ago. People could afford them, and there was plenty of water around.

“People wasted water like anything, both in normal usage as well as during farming,” said Ramakant Mishra, 69, the “Gram Pradhan” or village chief. The monsoon rains used to make up for the waste, but “God only knows what has gotten wrong.”

People who can afford water motors dig out the earth to about 10 feet deep and install their pumps. But they must keep digging, Mishra said, another one to two feet a year to keep up with the falling water level. His house, in Baranpur village of Pratapgarh district, was called the “kuan wala ghar” or “house with the well” because his father dug one 40 years ago. Back then, he said, water was scarce and people couldn’t afford their own wells or pumps. Now, everyone has taken as much water as they could, and he worries that soon Pratapgarh will be completely dry.

Sunil Tripathi, a teacher and water conservation activist, said people don’t understand the gravity of the problem.

“The rich people have got pricey water equipment like submersible pumps installed in their households, and they think the problem is solved. They are only adding to the problem,” he said. “Availability is limited and there is no replenishment. Still nobody understands this.”

Rajendra Singh, popularly known as “waterman” for his conservation efforts, said receding groundwater – by as much as five metres from previous levels – affects 40 percent of the country and forces people to migrate to look for water.

“Five years from now, there will be no solution, and after 10 years, even migration will not be able to meet our needs,” he said. “People had learned to cope with water crisis, but this problem has now aggravated to dangerous levels because earlier, the only source of water extraction were wells … Now, you have machines which can pull out water from as deep as 1,000 feet, making replenishment impossible even after good rains.”

Meanwhile, he added, state governments don’t seem to recognize the problem.

“You can see A-class water being given for irrigation to sugarcane farmers, whereas people are not getting even B or C-grade water for consumption,” Singh said.

This leads to class resentment, said Tripathi. “The rural poor have already started believing that those who have submersible pumps in their houses are gulping everyone’s fair share of water,” he said.

Khabar Lahariya editor Jatav said some people must drink water from open pits and ponds. That water often is standing, stagnant or contaminated with bacteria, and can spread diseases such as cholera and gastroenteritis.

She further says that even the houses that have piped water often don’t have the electricity to pump it. The normal water pressure in the supply provided by the water department is not good enough, so if people have to extract water, they need to fit motor pumps in the pipes. Oftentimes people encounter absurd situations: available piped water from 6 in the morning until 9 in the morning … and a power cut from 7 until 10. That means no water.

Village chief Mishra remembers seeing his well overflowing with water.

“I don’t think I am going to see this again in my life,” said Mishra, while Jaiswal gets ready to ride his bicycle to the next village. The tinkling sound of the hand pump tells Jaiswal there won’t be any water here today.

“Bhagwan hi malik hai. Dekhiye agle saal kya hota hai (Only God can help us now. Let’s see what happens next year),” Mishra said.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; You can follow Amit on Twitter @leosamit and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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