Hundreds of Indian villages lie empty and crops are dying as one of the worst droughts in decades and an unprecedented heat wave has forced families to abandon their homes in search of water.
In recent weeks India has seen extremely high temperatures, the city of Churu in Rajasthan recorded a temperature of 50.8C, making it the hottest place on earth.
By the end of May, 43% of India’s population was suffering from drought, with late and weaker monsoon rains seen as the main reason. India has seen widespread drought every year since 2015, apart from 2017.
Scientists blame the ongoing worldwide climate crisis, as well as stronger El Nino weather patterns.
The state of Maharashtra, a few hundred miles inland from Mumbai on the Indian Ocean, has been particularly badly hit. The drought, which began in early December has affected 25 million people. Some estimates suggest that 90% of the area’s population have fled their homes in search of water, leaving the old and sick to fend for themselves.
In the village of Hatkarwadi, 20 miles from Beed, the regional capital, wells, and handpumps are dry with just 10-15 families left from a population that once stood at 2,000.
The last time there was a decent amount of rainfall here was 3 years ago. The main Godavari River is running dry and all its smaller tributaries are just cracked, dry ditches.
More than 8 million farmers in Maharashtra and neighbouring Karnatka are struggling to survive. Crops such as maize, soya, cotton, and groundnuts have withered and died. Livestock is starving and even birds are dying because they have nothing to drink.
The increasingly common droughts have led to a shocking number of farmers committing suicide; 947 last year and 4,700 in the last five years, just in Marathwada. In the whole of India, around 80,000 farmers a year are estimated to take their own life.
Cities and towns in the drought-stricken regions are not faring any better. In Beed, which has a population of 240,000, clean drinking water from the tap has run out. Households don’t have enough water wash clothes, clean dirty dishes or flush the toilet, while hospitals are filing up with people suffering from dehydration and diarrhoea from drinking dirty water from the bottom of wells and dried out lakes.
People in towns and villages are having to buy water from water tankers or from rich neighbours who can afford to dig very deep boreholes – up to 650 feet- to reach the disappearing water table. Unsurprisingly, an illegal tanker mafia has sprung up.
Around 1,000 tankers transport barely drinkable water, spiked with chlorine, from the few wells and dams that have anything left in them to the 300 outlying villages around Beed.
Groundwater, which supplies 40% of India’s demand for water, is being depleted at an unsustainable rate. 21 Indian cities, including the capital Delhi, as well as Chenai and Hyderabad, are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020.
But a lack of rainfall is not the only reason for the drought and extreme lack of water. Last year Beed received 99% of its average yearly rainfall of 690mm, but this still led to some crop failures because there were long interruptions between the rains.
P Sainath, the editor, and founder of the online People’s Archive of Rural India told the BBC that the way water is distributed in India is also a major problem.
“The transfer of water from the farms to the industry, from food crops to water guzzling cash crops, from rural to urban areas, and from livelihood to lifestyle purposes for multiple swimming polls in urban high-rises has also led to this situation,” he said.
Deforestation of the area around Beed has led left just 2% of tree cover. This means that when it does rain, it is not stored in the soil by the root systems of trees, but just evaporates and washes away.
The Indian Metrological Department has forecast that Marathwada will get average to above rainfall this year, but that it will be delayed, with the much-needed monsoon arriving in July instead of June.