India has taken the unusual step of sending a water train to relieve a parched region as a severe drought tightens its grip on 10 of the country’s 29 states. The train, laden with half a million litres, arrived in the Maharashtra town of Latur, east of Mumbai, on Tuesday morning.
As conditions worsen, cricket authorities have promised to use treated sewage water on the pitch at Mumbai’s main Wankhede stadium after a court threatened to relocate the popular Indian Premier League tournament from Maharashtra because of what judges called “criminal wastage” of water for the sport.
India’s dry regions tend to start running short of water at this time of year — more than two months before the usual start of monsoon rains — but this year’s drought is particularly severe because poor monsoons across much of the country in both 2014 and 2015 have left dams and reservoirs with unusually low water levels.
Himanshu Thakkar, who runs the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a research and lobbying group, said the coming months would be “possibly the worst summer India is going to face in the post-independence era, particularly in central India”.
The inland Marathwada region of the western state of Maharashtra, where Latur is located, frequently falls prey to drought and has been particularly hard hit this year. So severe are the shortages that in some places the authorities have banned gatherings of more than five people at water distribution points to avoid riots.
But parts of central, northern and eastern India are also affected by drought, and its effects have been exacerbated by exceptionally high temperatures that some scientists attribute to the predicted impact of climate change on the Gangetic Plain south of the Himalayas.
Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Odisha on the east coast, recorded its highest ever April temperature of 45.8C on Monday. The state government has closed schools until April 20. Ranchi, capital of neighbouring Jharkhand state, has declared a “water emergency”. One of the largest power stations in West Bengal suspended operations last month after the supply of cooling water through a canal from the Ganges dried up.
On Monday the national government of Narendra Modi held a meeting on the drought in New Delhi and promised the immediate release of funds for animal fodder, drinking water, drought relief and the provision of wage employment for drought-affected farmers.
Scientists and government officials say India’s water problems, while particularly severe this year because of below-average rainfall, have been exacerbated by the near-quadrupling of the population since independence in 1947 and a failure to control farmers’ demand for water.