Parched India awaits monsoon rains as reservoirs begin to run dry

NEW DELHI: India warned of severe heat in northern and central areas yesterday, following similar extreme weather on Sunday. Of the 15 hottest places in the world in the past 24 hours, eight were in India with the others in neighboring Pakistan, according to weather monitoring website El Dorado. Churu, a city in the west of the northern state of Rajasthan, recorded the country's highest temperature of 48.9 Celsius yesterday, according to the Meteorological Department.

Churu has issued a heat wave advisory and government hospitals have prepared emergency wards with extra air conditioners, coolers and medicines, said Ramratan Sonkariya, additional district magistrate for Churu. Water is also being poured on the roads of Churu, known as the gateway to the Thar desert, to keep the temperature down and prevent them from melting, Sonkariya added. A farmer from Sikar district in Rajasthan died on Sunday due to heatstroke, state government officials said.

Media reported on Friday that 17 had died over the past three weeks due to a heatwave in the southern state of Telangana. A state official said it would confirm the number of deaths only after the causes had been ascertained. The temperature in New Delhi touched 44.6C on Sunday. One food delivery app, Zomato, asked its customers to greet delivery staff with a glass of cold water.

Heat wave warnings were issued yesterday for some places in western Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh state. The monsoon, which brings down the heat, is likely to begin on the southern coast on June 6, the weather office said last month. The three-month, pre-monsoon season, which ended on May 31, was the second driest in the last 65 years, India's only private forecaster, Skymet, said, with a national average of 99 mm of rain against the normal average of 131.5 mm for the season.

Meanwhile, millions of Indians are desperately awaiting overdue monsoon rains as they struggle to secure drinking water amid the heat wave that is rapidly drying up reservoirs and sending temperatures soaring across the country. India typically witnesses water scarcity during summer months, but the situation this year is particularly grim in western and southern states which received less than normal rainfall in the 2018 monsoon season.

"I wake early to get water from a well outside the village, as within three hours the water runs dry," says Ramchandra Pawar, a farmer from Latur district some 500 km southeast of Mumbai in the drought-hit western state of Maharashtra. The drought has ravaged crops, killed livestock, emptied reservoirs and hit city dwellers and supplies to some industries. Hardest hit are the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat, along with Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana down south and Madhya Pradesh in central India.

Depleting reservoirs have even forced some municipalities in places like Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad to cut supplies to ensure water lasts until the arrival of the monsoons, which are running a few days late. In total, key reservoirs in western India were at 11 percent of their overall storage capacity on Thursday, compared to 15 percent a year ago and ten-year average of 19 percent. State governments have deployed tankers to ease water scarcity, but people complain there are not enough.

"Tankers supply water only once in a week. The rest of the week, we have to carry water from a borewell where hundreds of people queue from early morning," said Zeenat Shaikh from Latur, a city with population of around 500,000. Maharashtra is using 6,209 lorries to supply water to 15,426 villages and hamlets - four times the fleet it sent out in 2018, said a senior state government official. "Tanker requirements are going up every week as reservoirs are depleting," the official said.

As government supplies are not enough, people are buying water from private tanker suppliers, and the price is rising with demand. In the southern city of Chennai, where many well-known IT companies are based, the price of a water tanker has nearly doubled in two months to 4,000 rupees, media reported.

Gautham Prithvirajan, 27, who lives in Chennai, said nobody in his street had been able to get clean drinking water despite drilling 350 feet into the ground, a situation he says he hasn't witnessed in years. The shortage had been exacerbated by private vendors digging deep into the water table, he said. "We are planning a protest later this week. Calls to rectify the situation have gone unanswered," he said.

Indians now hope the annual June-September monsoon rain will also bring down temperatures that have shot up above 45 degrees Celsius in many parts of the country. But there are fears it could deliver lower rainfall than normal, according to a private forecaster Skymet. Typically, the monsoons hit Kerala's southern coast on June 1, but this year it could be delayed until June 6, the state-run India Meteorological Department has warned. "We badly need a good monsoon this year. We lost crops last year and incurred losses," says Gorakh Patil, a farmer from Beed district in Maharashtra, who has been staying for the past three months at a cattle camp where the state government provides free fodder and water. - Reuters