Water train a lifeline in rural India

Afroz misses school every day to spend hours waiting with a handcart full of containers for a special train bringing precious water to people suffering a heatwave in Rajasthan.

Temperatures often exceed 45 deg C in this desert state, but this year the heat came early in what many experts say is more proof of climate change making life unbearable for India's 1.4 billion people.

"It's always been very hot here and we struggle for water but I don't remember filling up containers in April," Afroz, 13, told AFP as he waited in Pali district for the train a second time that day.

For more than three weeks now, the 40-wagon train - carrying some 2 million litres - has been the only source of water for the district. The people - mostly women and children - jostle with plastic jerry cans and metal pots as hoses gush water out of the train into an underground tank.

Water dispatch is nothing new but, according to local railway officials, it started early this year as the water shortage was already critical in April.

The wagons, filled in Jodhpur which is 65km away, are first emptied into cement storage tanks from which the water is sent to a treatment plant for filtering and distribution. But for Afroz's family and many others, it is easier for them to fill directly from the storage tanks.

That their children skip school to collect water is what hits the families the most. "I can't ask the breadwinner of the family to do it or we'd be struggling for both food and water," said Afroz's mother Noor Jahan.

"It is affecting my child's education but what can I do? I cannot carry all these containers on my own."

South Asia has been sweltering in an early summer heatwave in recent weeks, with India seeing its warmest March on record.

In India and Pakistan, "more intense heat waves of longer duration and occurring at a higher frequency are projected", the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in a recent landmark report.

The "cascading impacts" of heatwaves on agricultural output, water, energy supplies and other sectors are already apparent, World Meteorological Organisation chief Petteri Taalas said this month.

Last Friday, India banned wheat exports - needed to help fill a supply gap due to the Ukraine war - in part due to the heat wilting crops.

Together, high humidity and heat can create "wet-bulb temperatures" so vicious that sweating no longer cools people down, potentially killing a healthy adult within hours.

"I have already made three trips from my house in the last hour. And I'm the only one who can do it," said Ms Laxmi, another woman collecting water, pointing to cracks on her feet.

"We have no direct water to our homes and it is hot. What do we do if something happens to us while we walk up and down to fetch water?"

In 2019, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched an ambitious Jal Jeevan (Water Life) Mission, promising a functional tap connection to all households in rural India by 2024. But less than 50 per cent of the population has access to safely managed drinking water, according to UNICEF, with two-thirds of India's 718 districts affected by "extreme water depletion".

In Bandai village, 68-year-old Shivaram walked on the cracked bottom of a dried pond, which was the main source of water for both residents and their animals but had been dry for almost two years due to low rainfall.

"Farmers have been severely impacted. Some of our animals have died," said Mr Shivaram.



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