Stories in India

Drought Resilience in Times of COVID-19

By Shuchi Vora

Droughts make many families especially vulnerable to pandemics like COVID-19 precisely because they don’t have running water in their taps.
Drought Resilience Droughts make many families especially vulnerable to pandemics like COVID-19 precisely because they don’t have running water in their taps. © Sushmita Mandal

In these times of COVID-19, my husband and I settle down every morning on different floors to work from home. As I wash my hands for the fifth time today, my thoughts wander to our partners and communities we work with. They have come to occupy a large part in my life since I joined TNC, a little over a year ago.

As I turn on my tap, I think about Sakina*, a hydrogeologist working in the Devnadi river basin of Nashik district, as she balances her challenging work environment with a young child and aging parents. I think about Kalsubai* who we met on a scorching summer afternoon on the banks of the Ghod river in Pune district—how warmly had she invited us to a spontaneous puranpoli lunch! And then Omkar* and his toddler waving to me as I left their fallow farmland in Ambejogai, Beed district in Marathwada, the epicentre of severe droughts in India.

In cities across the world, we take the availability of running water in our taps for granted. Today, three in 10 people on earth do not have access to safe and clean water and one in three people in the world do not have access to a toilet. This means more than 5 million people are exposed to water-borne diseases such as Hepatitis A, Norovirus and diarrhoea—as many as 1.6 million people die from these. Studies predict that water scarcity will affect half of the world’s population by 2025. Water scarcity exposes these already vulnerable people to increased health risks. Climate change is already exacerbating water stress in some of these regions of the world, most notably, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Today, three in 10 people on earth do not have access to safe and clean water and one in three people in the world do not have access to a toilet.

TNC – India has been working on strengthening drought resilience for people and nature in Maharashtra, India’s worst-hit state when it comes to multi-year droughts since 2012. In 2019, nearly half of the state was declared drought-hit. Seven out of 11 dams in Marathwada region, a part of Maharashtra, had hit “Day Zero” by 2016. People in Marathwada—where one of our field geographies, Beed, is located—were dependent on tankers for domestic water supplies. They got about 40-50 litres (10-13 gallons) of water for a family every 10 days, instead of the 200-250 litres (approx. 50-65 gallons) of water per person in a day that we are used to in Delhi. The Indian government prescribes 135 litres of water (approx. 35 gallons) per person in a day.

Droughts make families of people like Omkar and Kalsubai especially vulnerable to pandemics like COVID-19 precisely because they don’t have running water in their taps. These parts of the country continue to reflect low human development indicators (infant and maternal mortality rates are high in parts of Marathwada) even as they aspire for economic growth much like the rest of India. Sugarcane, a water intensive crop, has been promoted in this region despite low water availability. Groundwater, that has hitherto been a bank for both people and nature to depend on in times of droughts, has been over-exploited. Much of Marathwada region has seen a fall of over 3 metres in their groundwater levels in the last five years.

So how do we respond to an emergency like this? For one, even before the pandemic affected India, we embarked on identifying what drought resilience meant to communities through Systems Thinking Workshops. We identified that people needed social networks, reliable information, ecosystem services like water availability, fodder and pollination, and an assured income to be resilient to droughts. At the same time, while droughts are a natural phenomenon, its impacts have been exacerbated due to changing water and land use patterns in the country. For this, we have begun the process of empowering communities for making place-based decisions on their water use and conserving local ecosystem services through Crop Water Budgeting tools and Drought Resilience Plans. While all this work continues, we have requested our partners to use their ongoing interactions (that will resume once the COVID crisis is over) to spread the message on sanitation and hygiene practices. The messaging is simple—hygiene cannot be sacrificed for other uses. It remains critical to their health and therefore, a non-negotiable use when they prioritize their water use in their village-level Drought Resilience Plans.

At the Conservancy, we are currently focused on changing mindsets and building capacities of the very communities that are the worst affected by the vagaries of droughts and are most directly dependent on nature for their well-being. To bring transformation at scale, we are also working on informing agriculture policy, markets and incentive-based mechanisms for farmers linked to drought indicators for India. As we co-produce knowledge about these dryland ecosystems and their responses to droughts, we hope to transform these communities into resilient, thriving stewards of the nature around them.

I turn off my tap to go back to my isolated workspace wondering what Kalsubai, with her doors open to all kinds of visitors, would think of social distancing.

*Names changed to protect privacy.