India: Delivering water by hand

A water shortage in Ranila village forces residents to walk more than a mile to get water from a well. The responsibility for fetching water falls heavily on women and girls. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

This story is part of the larger radio documentary Thirsty Planet, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).


DELHI, India — Friday is water day in Kumar Mukesh’s neighborhood. A 30-year-old laborer, Mukesh lives with his brother and 14 other relatives in a crowded flat in Kusumpur Pahari, one of Delhi’s infamous slums. There is no running water in the slum, so each Friday morning Mukesh and his neighbors line up before dawn with their 16-gallon containers. Around mid-morning on a spring Friday, a tanker truck hired by the city government lumbered up the narrow lane. With four hoses hooked to the tanker, an organized scramble ensued to fill as many of the 150 or so jugs as possible.

“There’s so much demand and often so little water that it’s hard to fill up enough containers,” Mukesh said.

A 45-year-old house cleaner named Papu had to skip work to line up for water because there’s no set time for the tanker’s arrival. He complained that his kids often miss school on water day. And the jugs they fill often don’t last the week.

“We have to measure water the way we measure cooking oil,” Papu said. “Any wastage means we don’t have enough water for the whole house. So we are very careful.”

Delhi is India’s capital and largest city, with a sprawling metro-area population of nearly 26 million people. According to Delhi’s water authority, some 60 percent of the city’s residents have access to piped water, but it usually flows for just a few hours each day. Wealthy homes and neighborhoods typically have their own private water systems, with large storage tanks to hold trucked-in water.

The rest of Delhi’s inhabitants get water from tankers and wells. Social rights activist Sonia Varma has lived in Kusumpur Pahari since 1974. The slum is an unauthorized hillside settlement surrounded by more prosperous Delhi neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of of people live here. Many migrated from the countryside to find work. The slum is a crowded, pungent place, where open sewers line the narrow roads and enormous pigs feast on mounds of fetid garbage.

Varma said she used to trek down the hill to draw water from taps in established housing tracts. In the 1990s, the Delhi government drilled wells in Kusumpur Pahari so residents could draw on groundwater. But the exploding population overwhelmed the system of pit toilets and open sewers in the slum, contaminating the aquifer. People who fail to get clean water when the tanker comes have little choice but to use the well water. “Some who are aware of the pollution boil the water before drinking it,” Varma said. “If not, they just drink that water. It’s one of the main causes of disease here. A lot of children are affected.”

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Residents of Kusumpur Pahari, one of Delhi’s vast slums, dispense drinking water from a tanker truck. There is no running water in the slum. The delivery comes once a week. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

According to a 2015 health study, some 300,000 Indian children die each year from diarrhea — 822 children each day — the third leading cause of mortality in children under five. Waterborne illnesses are the primary cause. Twenty percent of the communicable diseases in India are related to unsafe water, according to the World Bank Waterborne disease is the leading cause of death in the developing world. An estimated 801,000 children younger than 5 die from diarrhea-related illness each year.

If there is one place on Earth trying to cope with most of the water problems found on Earth, it’s India.

The recently elected minister of water for Delhi is a former Greenpeace activist, Kapil Mishra. He has pledged to connect all the city’s neighborhoods to piped water by the end of 2017. “It is safe,” Mishra said. “You can open the tap and drink it.” Still, many residents who can afford it have installed water filters in their homes. What contaminants that do find their way into the city’s drinking water come from sewage seeping into cracks in the supply lines, Mishra said.

Water security is one of the most pressing public concerns across South Asia. India is the world’s second most populous country after China, with some 1.3 billion people. Its terrain ranges from rainforest to desert and 60 percent of the land is agricultural. Water supplies across the country are polluted by untreated sewage and industrial waste. Scientists say weather patterns altered by global warming are causing unusual flooding in some parts of the country and drought in others. According to a 2013 report by the World Health Organization, 97 million Indians lack access to safe water, a burden that is especially acute for the poor.

In the crowded Delhi slum community of Sangam Vihar, the city’s largest, a water supply pipeline runs down the middle of a busy street next to the home of Paras Kumar Jha, an education activist. For many years the pipe was dry, but in 2015 Delhi’s water board voted to supply Sangam Vihar and other slum communities with water. Some residents get water from a public tap, but Jha and many of his neighbors have tapped the nearby line illegally. The faucets in his second-story flat now bubble with water each evening for about two hours.

“I hope the government will deliver on its promise to supply water to all of the homes here,” Jha said, adding that he wants the water department to install a meter at his house so he can pay for what he uses.

Crisis in farm country

In the south-central Indian state of Telangana, persistent drought is blamed for a rash of farmer suicides in recent years. Srisaliam Akkula’s father, Vittal, killed himself in January 2015 because he could not repay the $1,500 he borrowed to plant a cotton crop on his 1½-acre plot of land. The family has been farming for generations in the village of Pulkal, a relatively large agricultural community of 3,000 northwest of Telangana’s capital, Hyderabad.

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Srisaliam Akkula’s father committed suicide after he became deep in debt and his crop failed because of drought. Thousands of Indian farmers kill themselves each year because of drought-related problems. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Vittal Akkula, then 55, took out loans from private moneylenders and a pesticide shop. He was paying up to 36 percent interest on the balance. Then the cotton crop failed for lack of sufficient rain and Vittal was despondent.

“One day my father mixed pesticide in a drink and swallowed it,” Srisaliam said. “After 10 days in the hospital he was discharged and we brought him home. But he died the next day.”

Aribandi Prasada Rao of the Telangana Peasant’s Union says indebted farmers are killing themselves as a matter of honor. “The stigma associated with debt is also associated with social insult, Rao said. “When he is unable to pay the moneylender abuses the farmer in front of everyone. He can’t bear the insult and the farmer commits suicide.”

The Akkula family decided against requesting an autopsy of the father’s body, not knowing one would be required for them to claim the $2,200 in compensation they could get from the state government. It took Vittal’s three sons more than a year to pay back the loans — one works in construction, the other in beer factory, while Srisailam farms. This year he planted corn, but without sufficient rain that crop also failed.

“When the rains were abundant we just scattered the seeds and the crops grew,” Srisailam said. “Now we’re forced to spend money on pesticides and fertilizer. Things have become very difficult these last few years.”

Telangana’s farmers are facing yet more drought conditions. The dry spell became critical in 2013, and is considered one of the worst in more than a generation. According to the most recent Indian government statistics, nearly 900 farmers committed suicide in Telangana in 2014, second only to the hard-hit neighboring state of Maharashtra with 2,568 recoded suicides by farmers. The national toll in 2014 was put at 5,650. Debt and crop failure were cited as the leading causes. Farm activists say the actual number of suicides is greater, especially in the last two years, and that the government downplays the depth of the crisis.

Telangana is one of India’s largest farming states, and some 60 percent of Indians are employed in the agricultural sector.

Scientists contend that the drought is likely the result of a disruption in the behavior of India’s monsoon season, which in turn may be affected by higher ocean and atmospheric temperatures caused by global warming. The southwest monsoon occurs between June and September, providing 80 percent of Telangana’s annual rainfall. A study by a consortium of researchers cites “rapid warming” of the Indian Ocean — in combination with recent years of El Nino events in the Pacific — for the decline in monsoon rains.

“Among major oceans, the Indian Ocean is the smallest, but also the warmest,” said researcher Roxy Matthew Kroll of the Centre for Climate Change Research, and one of the study’s authors. “What our research finds is it’s been warming rapidly in the past decades. And this warming has resulted in the weakening of the monsoon from central Pakistan to central India to Bangladesh. At the same time, it has led to long dry spells intermittent with extreme rainfall.”

The problem with heavier-than-usual bursts of monsoon rain, scientists say, is the water runs off to rivers and, eventually the sea, before it can soak into farm fields and recharge underground aquifers.

“We have the same amount of rainfall, but instead of falling in 90 days it’s falling in 30 days,” said Suhaas Raje, a retired groundwater expert for the state of Telangana.

Giulio Boccaletti, an expert on global water issues at The Nature Conservancy, says India’s monsoons are unparalleled anywhere else on the planet.

“You have vast amounts of water in two to three weeks,” Boccaletti said. “Rain comes down and India doesn’t have the storage infrastructure to manage it.”

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Farmer Chirangi Malla Reddy hired a crew to drill a well in his farm field. With drought drying up rivers and irrigation canals, demand on groundwater in Telangana state has caused the water table to plummet. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

The state’s groundwater supply is also in trouble. In a field outside Pulkal village, farmer Chirangi Malla Reddy watches as a crew of laborers work a drilling machine. He’s hired them to bore a six-inch hole down into the aquifer below his field of sugarcane. He used to get water from a nearby irrigation canal, but that’s largely dried up. It’s the first time in his life he’s had to dig a well on his land.

The problem is, Reddy is far from alone. There are an estimated 1.3 million bore wells in Telangana state, and some 22 million across India. The state provides electricity free of charge for well pumps. Most of Telangana’s farmers work plots smaller than five acres. Corn, rice, wheat, cotton and sugar cane are common crops and require a reliable water supply to grow. Some farmers drill two or three wells on a small patch of land. That’s led to a precipitous drop in the water table, which means the well drillers must reach deeper into the earth. The deeper the well, the more it costs to dig.

Farm activist Sarampally Malla Reddy of the All India Peasants Union said many of the farmers committing suicide got into debt paying for bore wells on their land. A well and a pump can cost $3,000. Given that the average annual income of the median farmer in India is less than $300, wells are a massive investment. Reddy has called on the government to offer better commodity price supports for small farmers. He also said government employment programs that offer low-skill construction jobs to struggling farmers should be expanded.

Too much water and all at once

So much rain fell on Nov. 9 that a farmer named Jayalakshmi found herself shoulder deep in a flood. The name of her village, Keezhiruppu, means “settlement on low ground” in the local language, Tamil. Terrified because she can’t swim, the 30-year old farmer and her family made their way to high ground and safety. The nearby Gadilam River had breached its banks, washing away her five acres of grain, cashew and jackfruit. The storm killed her 5,000 chickens, and leaving behind a deep layer of sandy silt.

The annual Northeast Monsoon season, from October to December, is when this coastal area of Tamil Nadu state gets nearly 60 percent of its annual rainfall. In 2015, it rained for nearly 40 days in a row, with a few breaks. There were three intense downpours, including the one on Nov. 9. Flooding in the state capital of Chennai and across the countryside killed hundreds of people and produced an estimated $3 billion in damage.

Climate scientists say the same weak monsoon syndrome that provokes drought in south central India contributed to 2015’s intense rains along the country’s southeastern coast.

A 42-year-old village leader named Babu pulled out his cell phone to show video of the flood pouring though his hamlet of Melirruppu. Cuddalore District, where these villages are located, is some 100 miles south of Chennai along the Bay of Bengal coastline. The flooding in Cuddalore destroyed orchards, killed a vast number of livestock and damaged some 90,000 homes. The state government offered villagers $75 in compensation for a partially-damaged home and $150 for a complete loss. Dozens of farm families have left Melirruppu and surrounding villages to seek work in the city. Babu said about a third of the 70 bore wells in his village caved in because of the flooding. He said the water table, which had dropped hundreds of feet due to overuse, was substantially recharged by the deluge.

“That’s the positive side of the rain,” Babu said.

Perhaps the most devastating byproduct of the monsoon flood is damage to the farm fields themselves. The floodwaters scoured away valuable topsoil and left behind a deep blanket of silt across a vast acreage in scores of villages. A woman named Revathi runs a small NGO called Inspire, which is helping hire bulldozers to clear farmers’ fields.

“It’s eight, 10, 15 feet deep in some places,” she said. “Even some houses are buried under sand. Everywhere it’s just a desert. So the damage is huge and it’s very tough for them to get back their land.”

Poisoned water

When visitors came to her door, Tirupatamma pulled herself across the cement floor with her hands. Her stunted legs were twisted beneath her. She propped herself on the stoop to tell her story.

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The water in Tirupatamma’s rural villages has an exceptionally high level of fluoride, which at such concentrations can cause severe skeletal and dental problems. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Tirupatamma’s health problems started in sixth grade. She started getting pains in her legs and had to start walking with a stick. “I used to rest under a tree on my way to school unable to bear the pain. I would go to school crying. I could not even eat properly because of the pain,” Tirupatamma said.

She had skeletal fluorosis, a debilitating condition that can deform bones and calcify ligaments. Tirupatamma, 35, got the disease because the well water in her remote village of Vattipalli is contaminated by high levels of fluoride. Ironically, many municipal water systems around the globe add a small amount of fluoride to drinking water to prevent tooth decay. But an unhealthy level of fluoride in the water can decay teeth and attack bones.

Tirupatamma said one in 10 people in this village of 2500 is a fluorosis victim. Her parents are dead and she has no siblings. She lives on a monthly government allotment of $23 and 77 pounds of rice. After her story and photograph appeared in a British newspaper, the government piped water to the village — and her house — from the Krishna River about 30 miles away.

Vattipalli village and the surrounding area has one of the highest drinking water fluoride levels in the world, according to Subash Kanchukatla, the head of an NGO called Fluorosis Victims Liberation Committee.

“Water contains minerals, of which fluoride is one. Unfortunately, around here it is abnormally high,” Subash said. “In the old days people used to think the village was cursed because of this problem.” Of Nalgonda District’s 3,477 villages, Subash said 33 percent have high fluoride levels, yet the government is of little help.

Another source of water contamination is entirely human-made. Poor sanitation is one of India’s most serious public health challenges. Nearly 600 million Indians — about half the population — defecate in the forests, fields and along roadways, according to UNICEF. There simply are not enough toilets of any variety. The problem is especially acute in the countryside. Much of the resulting illness that develops is because of inadequate hand washing, but contaminated drinking water is also a serious threat.

Strolling down a village path or a busy urban street in India, the scent in the air can turn, in a matter of footsteps, from flowering gardens to festering sewage. India’s central government launched a $9.4 billion Clean India Mission to mark the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi in 2019.

Burden of fetching water

Women in the farm village of Ranila are fed up with trudging miles every day to get water.

The canal that used to bring water to the village of Ranila has been mostly dry for some two years. The water was somewhat salty and mostly used for washing clothes and other household needs. Some folks in Ranila blame a rival village upstream for taking all the water. But water resources in the surrounding state of Haryana have increasingly been diverted to keep water flowing in Delhi, 60 miles to the east. Ranila is one of many farm villages with a water shortage.

“We are forced to carry water in pots on our heads and fetch the water from a distance of more than a mile,” said a farmer named Vimla, 62. “It is all the more pathetic that the quality of water we fetch from so far away is extremely poor. It causes us skin allergies.”

A boy in Ranila totes water on a bike. While women and girls fetch water the most, boys and men sometimes help. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

A boy in Ranila totes water on a bike. While women and girls fetch water the most, boys and men sometimes help. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

The women of Ranila fetch water from wells on the outskirts of the village. The well water is mostly used for household chores and livestock, although some of the poorer villagers also drink it. The steel or clay pots carry up to four gallons and can weigh 50 pounds. Still, one pot is not enough for the daily needs of most families. So women make the trip two or more times a day.

Many people in Ranila buy their drinking water from a business in a nearby village that has a reverse osmosis system and delivers water containers directly to customers. There is also a private bore well in the village that sells water. A family may spend up to $10 a month on drinking water, which is a lot of money in a Haryana village.

Ranila farmer Anita helped organize a protest about the water shortage by the women of Ranila that caught the attention of the news media and, briefly, local political officials. Water ran for a time, then stopped.

“There is a good supply of water only when politicians visit our village for their election campaigns,” Anita said.

More than a dozen women from Ranila gathered at Anita’s house to discuss the water problem. They spoke with such fervor and exasperation that a male villager passing by popped his head in Anita’s open door. Most of the women quickly hid their faces behind their veils. Rural villagers in Haryana continue to practice certain traditional customs, such as the practice that married Hindu women cover their faces in the presence of most men.

Anita has been especially outspoken about the undue burden of carrying water that falls on girls and women. Men in Ranila — and much of India — view the work as below them. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

Anita has been especially outspoken about the undue burden of carrying water that falls on girls and women. Men in Ranila — and much of India — view the work as below them. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

The curious man, Sunil Kumar, downplayed his village’s water problem. He predicted that the village would soon be connected to an irrigation canal five miles away. “Water is not a very big problem,” he said. The women waited for him to finish talking and leave.

The burden of collecting water falls mainly on women and girls. In Ranila, they typically fetch water in the morning and the early evening.

“Indian society is patriarchal,” said social activist Jagmati Sangwan, head of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). “Male folk take it as inferior work and don’t contribute.” Sangwan says toting water becomes a girl’s work as soon as she is old enough to lift the pot to her head, often as young as 6. The chore can become an obstacle to a girl’s education, and many drop out of school to attend to housework while their brothers continue to graduation.

“Men just play cards or sleep whenever they feel like it,” said Anita. “We do all the household chores even after we work all day in the fields.”

“There is quite a large section of women who spend more than three hours a day, and walk more than 15 miles, fetching water,” Sangwan says. The situation prevents millions of women from pursuing opportunities in education and commerce that might better their social status. “Women’s minds are preoccupied with drinking water problems,” she said.

In the afternoon, Anita lifted a pot to her head and walked to the well. She used a bucket made from a piece of truck tire to fill the container. In twos and threes, women and girls from Ranila marched stoically to the well. A Dalit woman from the village, her face entirely veiled, trudged past the well with her empty pot. Because she is “untouchable,” she is not allowed to use a well frequented by higher-caste women. The Dalit well is farther away.

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A villager in Ranila fills her pot, which can carries up to four gallons and can weight 50 pounds. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

A future in millet burgers and ancient reservoirs?

India’s water problems are many, but homegrown solutions are being pursued keenly. One is a return to ancient knowledge.

Some agriculture experts who study dryland regions such as south-central India say there are nutritious, alternative crops that grow more successfully in such harsh conditions. These crops can grow just with available rainfall. They also require little or no pesticides. An NGO called the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) promotes the cultivation of cereals and legumes that are drought resistant, high in food value and can be a food supply for both humans and livestock.

ICRISAT’s large campus outside Hyderabad features both red and black soil, the two primary kinds of dirt found in the drylands of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa — home to almost 3 billion people, nearly a third of whom are poor. On ICRISAT test plots and in its laboratories, researchers are breeding high-yield varieties of grains such as sorghum, pearl millet and finger millet, as well as legumes including pigeon pea, chickpea and peanuts. Millets can be ground into a flour and used in soups, porridges and other dishes. The dried legumes are high in protein and easy to store.

The trick is to make these food sources appealing to consumers as an alternative to rice, corn and wheat. In India, millets have the reputation of being old-fashioned, poor people’s food. So ICRISAT is working to develop demand for the grains in the West, as well as locally.

“Millets could be the next quinoa,” said Joanna Kane-Potaka, director of strategic marketing and communication. Quinoa is an amino-acid-packed grain, cultivated by the Inca, that has recently gained enormous appeal in the United States and Europe. Kane-Potaka gestured to a shelf in her office displaying products made from Indian millets and legumes, including pasta, snack bars and baked chips.

“It’s gluten free. You can cook it like couscous. You can use it to make a vegetarian patty, a millet burger. I make millet milkshakes,” she said.

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After the monsoon flooding in Tamil Nadu in November 2015, farmer Jayalakshmi lost all her cops, as well as 5,000 chickens. The floodwaters left behind a thick layer of sand that had to be bulldozed away before replanting could begin. (Photo: Stephen Smith)

In the rural Telangana village of Potpalle, a farmer named Mogilamma has been growing millets on her two-acre plot for more than 20 years. There’s been little market demand for her crops; she grew them to feed her family.

“We don’t need any water for growing these crops except what we get from the rains,” Mogilamma said. “Although there are bore wells in our village, we use them just for drinking water.”

Mogilamma belongs to a rural Telangana organization called the Deccan Development Society (DDS), which has been encouraging small farmers in 70 local villages to grow millets. The DDS especially serves women farmers and families from the Dalit, or “untouchable,” caste. DDS helps farmers process and bag their grains for sale in markets in Hyderabad and other nearby cities.

DDS Director Kumar Suresh says the government should offer increased price supports for millets, in line with the higher amounts for rice and wheat. “Telangana should be declared a millet state,” Suresh says. “These millet farmers are not demanding any electrical power. These millet farmers are not demanding any water or fertilizer subsidy. And, so far, no millet farmer has committed suicide.”

Sammamma is a farmer from a Dalit family in Bidekanna village. Under a government program to provide land to Dalit families, she grows millets on a five-acre plot. Her family used to support itself, just barely, by breaking stones by hand and selling them for construction.

“We are not making a lot of money, but we are able to meet our food needs and we get some money from selling the surplus,” Sammamma said. “I used to have just one dress to wear. It was hand-to-mouth living. Now we are comfortable after getting into millets.”

The state of Telangana is also promoting another time-tested technology. A campaign called Mission Kakatiya aims to restore some 46,000 reservoirs, lakes, earthen dams and irrigation systems across Telangana. The effort was launched in 2015 by the state’s chief minister, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao, and is expected to cost $3.4 billion. An exuberant music video in the Telugu language celebrates the campaign.

There are more than 500,000 irrigation “tanks,” as Indians call them, in the country. Dating as far back as the eighth century, the hand-build structures were designed to capture monsoon rains for use in dry seasons. They are gravity-based systems, often built in a chain of cascading holding pools. Over the centuries, Sultans and Mughals ruled over the digging of tanks in India’s arid regions. In modern times, a great number of the reservoirs and canals were left to deteriorate.

Reviving Telangana’s tank system includes an employment program for drought-stricken farmers who are hired to do unskilled work on the restoration. The name Mission Kakatiya refers to a 12th century South Indian dynasty that oversaw a boom in tank construction.

Telangana’s modern-day leaders have promised that this revival of past practice will create a more sustainable future for agriculture.

Episode: Thirsty Planet