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Villages Evacuate, Leaving Sick and Elderly Behind, as India’s Crippling Drought Deepens

Families in hundreds of villages in parts of India have been forced to leave the sick and the elderly behind, as they evacuate their communities in the face of extreme heat and drought.

“The country has seen extremely high temperatures in recent weeks,” The Guardian reports. “On Monday the capital, Delhi, saw its highest-ever June temperature of 48°C. In Rajasthan, the city of Churu recently experienced highs of 50.8°C, making it the hottest place on the planet.”

To the south, “less than 250 miles from the country’s commercial capital, Mumbai, village after village lies deserted,” the UK-based publication continues. “Estimates suggest up to 90% of the area’s population has fled, leaving the sick and elderly to fend for themselves in the face of a water crisis that shows no sign of abating.”

The heat wave has killed at least 36 people so far, the New York Times reports.

As of the end of May, 43% of the country faced drought conditions, mainly due to failed monsoon rains. “About 20,000 villages in the state of Maharashtra are grappling with a severe drinking water crisis, with no water left in 35 major dams. In 1,000 smaller dams, water levels are below 8%. The rivers that feed the dams have been transformed into barren, cracked earth.”

And the still bigger problem is that “groundwater, the source of 40% of India’s water needs, is depleting at an unsustainable rate,” The Guardian adds, citing a 2018 report by the Niti Aayog government think tank. “Twenty-one Indian cities—including Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad—are expected to run out of groundwater by 2020, and 40% of India’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030.”

The even more immediate crisis in Maharashtra is that “wells and hand pumps have run dry in the 45°C heat wave,” notes reporter Sam Relph. “The drought, which officials say is worse than the 1972 famine that affected 25 million people across the state, began early in December.” As of two weeks ago, the village of Hatkarwadi “had been deserted, with only 10 to 15 families remaining out of a population of more than 2,000.”

The drought has eight million farmers in Maharashtra and neighbouring Karnataka state struggling to survive. “More than 6,000 tankers supply water to villages and hamlets in Maharashtra daily, as conflict brews between the two states over common water resources,” The Guardian states. “Crops have withered and died, leaving livestock starving and with little to drink. Major crops, including maize, soya, cotton, sweet lime, pulses, and groundnuts—drivers of the local economy—have suffered.”

One of the regions most severely affected is Marathwada, where the drought has driven more than 4,700 farmers to suicide in the last five years. “In the city of Beed, clean drinking water has run out and households do not have enough water to wash clothes, clean dishes, or flush the toilet. Hospitals are filling up with people suffering from dehydration—and gastrointestinal disease from drinking contaminated water,” The Guardian writes.

“Residents who can afford it pay private water tankers the equivalent of £3 for 1,000 litres of water,” but “many end up in hospital as a result—even cows refuse to drink the muddy and salty liquid that has been dredged from the bottom of exhausted dams and lakes in the region.”

“Over the last 1½ months, there has been a 50% rise in the number of patients suffering from diarrhea, gastritis, etc.,” said Dr. Sandeep Deshmukh at the Beed Civil Hospital. “We have appealed to the people to boil drinking water.”