Chhatarpur, Panna (Madhya Pradesh): “We walk for 10-15 km everyday to fetch water even in the unbearable heat of the summers,” said Sumintra Devi, an adivasi in Madhya Pradesh’s Panna district.

The 65-year-old is a resident of Nayi Basti, a drought-prone village of the Laxmipur Gram Panchayat of Bundelkhand. She brings home four dabbas or plastic boxes in one round, holding approximately 80 litres of water. This translates to 20 litres of water per person for her four-member family, half of the 40 litres per person that Indian guidelines say people need for their daily use.

The larger region Sumintra Devi lives in is Bundelkhand, a semi-arid, drought-prone area covering the districts of Jhansi, Jalaun, Lalitpur, Mahoba, Hamirpur, Banda and Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh and another six districts of Datia, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Panna, Damoh and Sagar in Madhya Pradesh.

Map of Bundelkhand region of India

Source: Climate Resilient Development In Bundelkhand Region of Madhya Pradesh, Development Alternatives

This already water-scarce region is facing a triad of challenges: rising temperature, more rainfall over fewer days which means more runoff and lower groundwater recharge, and overuse and mismanagement of existing ground water resources, experts tell us.

Mean maximum temperatures in this climate hotspot have increased by 0.28 degrees celsius from 1980 to 2005 as compared to the period between 1960 and 1990, an analysis by Development Alternatives, based on data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) found. The future is going to be worse; climatic modelling experiments by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) predict temperatures will likely be higher by about 2 to 3.5°C by the end of this century.

In the current monsoon too, Chhatarpur had received 18% less rainfall than normal while Panna had received 3% less rainfall, between June 1 and August 23, data from the IMD show.

As part of our series on India’s climate hotspots, we look at the districts of Panna and Chhatarpur in Bundelkhand, and how people are struggling to access a resource necessary for life: water.

Collecting water is the responsibility of women and children

More than anyone, it is the women who face the brunt of the lack of water. Across India as a whole, women spend an estimated 150 million work days every year fetching and carrying water, equivalent to a national loss of income of Rs 10 billion or $160 million.

According to the National Sample Survey Office’s (NSSO) 76th round’s report on Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing, in Madhya Pradesh, just 28% of households either had a drinking water source inside their homes or just outside their homes, according to the survey between July and December 2018. The rest travel a distance of 200 metres or less (48% households) to over 1.5 km (0.2%).

India has a programme to provide functional tap connections to all households, but in Panna district only 30% of households had a tap connection, while 33% had a tap connection in Chhatarpur, as of August 22, as per the dashboard of the Jal Jeevan Mission.

Shantibai, sits barefoot at the front gate of her mud house.

Shantibai, 65, of Basai village in Devendra Nagar, Panna, struggles to make ends meet; given the lack of rains and no regular water supply, there are few opportunities to farm in the area. Shantibai and the entire village depend on a small water body, 3 km away. With constant pain in her back, and her only son working in the city as a labourer, she struggles to fetch water each day. This has ramifications for girls in the village too, who help their family and neighbours carry water. Shantabai says, “A little girl of 12 years in my neighbourhood helps me to carry water.”

“Women in the village carry water on their heads by piling jars or buckets on them. Back, foot, and posture issues result from the pressure and the distance from water sources. The heat makes them feel more exhausted, and the task itself consumes time that could be used for other responsibilities,” said Neelam Rai, sarpanch of Laxmipur village. “The fact that these women must spend their days carrying water is a significant loss because it prevents them from earning an income, providing better care for their children, or, in the case of a young girl, enabling her to receive an appropriate education.”

Villagers say not every child in Madli village, Panna District, goes to school, partly because they say children are not taught well in school. At the same time, the struggle for water exacerbates the problem. When we visited the villages in Panna and Chhatarpur district, it was women and children who were mostly seen near handpumps, wells and other water sources. Barefoot or in school uniforms, many children were filling water during school hours.

Kusum Rani sits outside her house, waiting for her daughter-in-law to return with the drums of water for the day.

Kusum Rani, 68, lives with her two sons, who have never been to school and work as cattle rearers now. Her daughter-in-law fetches water for the household, aided by her 16-year-old grandson. “My grandson also helps his mother in fetching water everyday. We bought a second-hand cycle which allows him to carry the water drums,” she said.

While she hopes for her 16-year-old grandson to study, she says, “Like my sons, he does not go to school. The headmaster beats children with shoes and sticks. Once he was terrified, he never went back. They don't even teach anything. He is 16 and cannot write his name.”

Children at school, left. Children filling water from the handpump in front of the public school, right.

Rai, the sarpanch, said she needs support from the upper authorities to dig more wells and build a dam to fulfil the water needs in her village. According to her, the funds currently allotted are not sufficient.

IndiaSpend has reached out to the district collectors of Panna and Chhatarpur, as well as to the water resources department in Madhya Pradesh for information about the funds allotted for water availability in the districts, and will update the story when they respond.

Already scanty rainfall, changing weather patterns

Of Bundelkhand’s 95 cm annual rainfall, nearly 85 cm falls over four months from June to September, in about an average of 40 rainy days. An analysis of rainfall data by R. Ranjan, Yogesh Patil, Jatin Singh and Arzoo Saha, using data from Skymet weather, showed that often heavy rainfall happens in just a few hours, which means that water has little time to penetrate into the soil for recharging groundwater. “On some occasions, the intensity goes up to 3-5 cm per hour, each spell lasting for 15 minutes to half an hour,” the authors wrote.

Another study, published in Current Science in September 2019, detailed a declining rainfall trend between 1901 and 2013, varying from 0.49 to 2.16 mm per year in the Bundelkhand region. In Panna, rainfall reduced by 1.06 mm per year, and by 0.74 mm per year in Chhatarpur. “It is reported that the amount of monsoonal rainfall has become half of its long-term normal amount during the last two decades resulting in continuous drought lasting for 4–5 years,” the study noted.

Another 2022 analysis by researchers from the Department of Agricultural Engineering at Banaras Hindu University found that 12 of the 13 districts in Bundelkhand, including Panna and Chhatarpur, “show a decreasing annual rainfall trend for the period of 1981 to 2020.” The region is “heading in the direction of drier time with more erratic rainfall behaviour,” the authors wrote.

The area has hard rock aquifers, said Fanai Liansangpuii, a PhD research scholar, who was part of the study, and these have poor transmissibility of water. As such, she said, shallow dug wells of 5 to 15 m depth are the primary source of water for domestic and agricultural use which are not sufficient.

Average rainfall in September in Panna district has declined from 283.3 cm in 1984 to 80.8 cm in 2014, as per data from the IMD, analysed by IndiaSpend. The annual rainfall in the district has also declined over the same 30 year period, data show.

Locals say the rainfall pattern is also changing, with more rainfall over fewer days.

“The rainfall used to continue for around 1-2 weeks,” said Dilip Ahirwar, a social worker who runs non-governmental organisation Baavan (Bagh Aap Aur Van), that works on promoting wildlife conservation in association with communities living in and around protected areas in Panna National Park, home to 55 tigers. “Now it is for 1-2 hours or a day or [heavy] rainfall happens at intervals.” In addition, said Ahirwar, “We feel extreme winters and extremely hot summers which was not the case a few years back.”

If a large amount of rainfall occurs within a short period, there is lower storage of water, said Lalit Mohan Sharma, Principal Scientist, Water, Research and Training at the Sehgal Foundation, a Gurugram-based NGO focused on rural development. This is even as the demand for water has grown in Bundelkhand, especially due to extended summers, Sharma added.

More frequent drought

High temperature and low rainfall lead to prolonged droughts, which can worsen due to climate change.

The number and duration of droughts has increased by 29% since 2000, as compared to the two previous decades, as per the Drought in Numbers, 2022 report released at the 15th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). “The effect of severe droughts was estimated to have reduced India’s gross domestic product by 2-5 per cent" between 1998 and 2017, the assessment said.

Droughts are the combined impact of reduced rainfall, reduced availability of water and reduction in crop yield. Meteorological droughts refer to drought resulting from a prolonged period of below-average precipitation, ‘hydrological droughts’ are the abnormally low flow of water in rivers, and low levels of lakes, reservoirs and groundwater–which usually follow meteorological droughts–and ‘agricultural droughts’, mean reduced crop production or a total failure of crops–which could occur with a time lag of a year after meteorological droughts–according to a research project by the Indian Council of Social Science Research.

A study of droughts from 1901 to 2001, as published by the National Institute of Disaster Management in 2014, shows that “severe drought years have sharply increased in the last 30 years” in Bundelkhand. “Bundelkhand region of U.P. and M.P. had a drought every 16 years in 18th and 19th centuries, which increased by three times during the period 1968 to 1992 and now becoming an annual feature,” the report says.

A 12 year-old boy carrying two dabbas of water on a bicycle in Madli village, Panna district.

“On average the evapotranspiration rate [process by which water moves from the earth to the air through evaporation and transpiration] in the Bundelkhand region is around 1,600 mm, whereas the rainfall level is less than 1,000 mm which makes the situation worse,” said Nitin Bassi, the programme Head for water at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) to IndiaSpend. In addition, “due to hard rock terrain and black soil, and the overexploitation of groundwater, regular droughts due to climate change, the water table is depleting year after year.”

Low rainfall and drought means farming losses, with dire consequences for the people of the area.

Shiv Devi operating a hand pump in her village. The 68-year-old says most hand pumps in the area are dry.

“Both my sons are unemployed, we do not own any land. We used to work as farm labourers but due to less rainfall, there were huge crop-losses and we were not paid at all last year,” says Shiv Devi, 68, from Panna, who has a family of six.

People in the villages say they struggle to farm, and many end up working the diamond mines, as cattle rearers or migrate to nearby cities.

The water scarcity does not only impact humans, but leads to human-tiger conflict in the Panna Tiger Reserve, and impacts tiger habitat, said experts. Sharma of the Sehgal Foundation said that during the summer, most of the hand pumps in villages go dry, and people resort to taking water from streams situated downhill, shared by wildlife, posing risk of conflict.

Further, “the water is often contaminated leading to diseases and people living inside the reserve are less aware and hence generally consume the water directly without filtering it,” he added.

IndiaSpend has reached out to Rajasree Ray, the economic advisor in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC), as well as to Leena Nadan, secretary in the MOEFCC, for comment on mitigation and adaptation to climate change in Panna, Chhatarpur, and the larger Bundelkhand region. We will update the story when we receive a response.

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