December 4, 2016 7:00 am JST

Drought and doubt in rural India

A visit to the dusty countryside reveals the cruel impact of the elements

YUMI KOTANI, Nikkei staff photographer

"It was only April, but the temperature had already risen well above 40 C in the village I was visiting in the western Indian state of Rajasthan."

Walking along a dirt road, I came upon a girl clad in brightly colored traditional clothing. She was balancing a large pot of water on her head. With each passing car, swirling clouds of dust were kicked up into the parched air around us.

She explained that she was returning home from a well, where she had fetched water for a meal. I asked her how the drought was affecting her life.

"We have no problem getting water for everyday use," she said, looking almost embarrassed. Though she downplayed her plight, it was obvious that a crisis loomed.

In another village, some 30km from where we stood, I had seen the desiccated remains of what had been a river but was now a barren scar some 150 meters wide. It was hard to imagine that water had once coursed through that land.

Continuing on my way, I encountered a young man who told me the area had not seen rain for months. His village of about 700 people had traditionally been supported by wheat farming, he said. But with the scorched fields incapable of producing life, many of the villagers now worked at a construction site in a nearby town, he said. Emergency water supplies were brought in every five days, but some households were barely getting by, he said.

At the time, India was suffering through its second straight year of record dry weather and heat waves. Scientists attribute the abnormal weather to El Nino, a phenomenon characterized by unusually warm temperatures in the waters off Peru.

The dry weather has forced an estimated 330 million Indians, or about a quarter of the population, to experience water shortages.

Lack of water and damaged crops are bad enough, but the consequences can be far more serious. In a country where many households cannot afford air conditioning, heatstroke is a very real danger. In one four-month period recently, heatstroke claimed the lives of more than 300 Indians.

The drought is said to have ended by the time August drew to a close, but I have not heard whether Rajasthan has been touched by rain.

Millions of Indians are at the mercy of the weather, and the extremes there can be fatal. I desperately hope that girl is spending her days full of smiles rather than doubts.

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