Lack of rainfall combined with depleting groundwater levels has left most people in the district without a reliable source of drinking water.

On either side of the roads leading into Erudukuttahalli village in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district are barren fields coated with clumps of brown dirt. Most farmers in the region have abandoned attempts to revive the land for the season owing to the acute water scarcity plaguing the district.

Dharmapuri, like many parts of Tamil Nadu, is currently facing a severe drought due to a lack of rainfall. The northeast monsoon had failed in 2018, with Dharmapuri recording a deficit of 50% rainfall. This failed monsoon combined with depleting groundwater levels has left most people without a reliable source of water for drinking and other necessities.

“We don’t even have enough water for ourselves, how do you expect us to be able to maintain the lands?” asks 65-year-old Munuswamy. He isn’t the only one to share this sentiment. Erudukuttahalli is one of several villages in the district’s Palacode taluk that has been hit by the drought. The village, which is home to roughly 700 people, has been reeling from the water crisis, with most people struggling without enough water to drink.

“On some days I find myself giving our cows less water so that we have water to drink. Other days I’m lucky enough to hear about some place nearby where there is water, so I go there to fill water,” says 35-year-old Kavitha, another resident of the village, adding, “But most of the time it’s hit or miss and there are many days we are left without water.”

Next to her is an old TVS bike with a rough, brown sack placed on the seat. Two rope strings are parallelly tied around the seat, and tied to the neck of four plastic pots which hang around the bike like an empty, abandoned merry-go-round. Her family has been lucky today, she says, they were able to get drinking water from five kilometers away. “That means we all will get enough water to manage for the next few days,” she says with a forced smile.

It is a kind of smile that was short-lived as the realisation hits over the uncertainty in finding a new source of water in the near future.

The fight for water, for basic survival here is palpable. Every resident is like a war stuck in a repetitive battle, and behind Kavitha’s smile it was evident that she knew that there was no time to celebrate victory of having struck upon water, because it only bought them time for a few more days until they’d have to go in search of water again. But this time, would it only be five kilometers?

While most villages in Palacode have a water tank, the drought has left the reservoirs dry, forcing people to scrounge for water. Several residents are forced to go long distances in search of water, some going up to seven kilometers one way for a mere two pots of water.

“Some people have two-wheelers, they are able to tie pots to the bikes and go in search of water wherever they can find, but what about those of us who are too old to do that? Or the ones who don’t have bikes?” questions 70-year-old Raniamma. Sitting on a flimsy white plastic chair outside a makeshift shop, the elderly woman points to her feet, “I already suffer from health problems which makes it difficult for me to stand, much less walk. How can I go long distances searching for water?”

A few months ago, several residents of the village staged a protest on the main roads, barricading them with empty plastic pots, demanding that the government take cognisance of their problems and provide them with water. Since then, water is sometimes supplied to the village via water tankers, but the residents say it is not always fit for consumption.

Raniamma calls out to a resident passing by to bring a sample of the water that was delivered via tanker. Moments later, the elderly woman appears with a plastic mug filled with water that has dirt particles floating about. But a closer look reveals tiny larvae swimming around. “This is what they give us, we have to filter it ourselves and then drink the water,” she says.

Supply from Hogenakkal

Down the road from Raniamma’s shop, the path is bone dry and crusted with dirt, a light breeze causes the dust to cloud. A ‘mini’ tank stands at the edge of the village with a row of colourful plastic pots lined up. Different sizes and different colours. What would their owners have looked like? Would they have worn the same lines of worry that was starting to become a familiar sight among the residents? Did that small plastic brown pot belong to a child whose family had made them stand in line while they had gone (perhaps on a two-wheeler if they were one of the more ‘fortunate’ ones) in search of water elsewhere? Did they wonder as they stood in line, why they had to wait in line for water so long? Or where it came from and why there seemed to be so little of it?

In the 1960s, then state Chief Minister K Kamaraj had introduced the idea of a project to supply clean drinking water to people living in Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri districts. The project has now come to be known as the Hogenakkal Water Supply and Fluorosis Mitigation Project and was only properly implemented from 2013, nearly 50 years after its conception.

This remains a large source of drinking water for a number of villages in Palacode till date.

Panchapalli and Thumbalalli dams used to be traditional water sources for Dharmapuri district. However due to lack of adequate rainfall resulting in acute water deficit, the Hogenakkal water supply and occasional Cauvery water supply are the only two primary sources of water for residents of the villages in the district.

Kesarkuli dam is one of the smaller dams in the vicinity. Today, however, it is evident by the shrinking land masses that the lack of rainfall has significantly impacted the water levels in the reservoir. It was scorching hot, the sun beating down on the steps up to the top of the dam. It became evident that the water body had lost a significant amount of water, with several islets of shriveled up land clinging to the edges of whatever remaining water there was.

Elsewhere in Palacode

Standing at the entrance to the Palacode Government Hospital, 60-year-old Murugesan describes how the Hogenakkal water is his village’s only source of drinking water. “We get the Hogenakkal water supply from the government once a day. The tanker comes and we are able to get water,” says the resident of Chittarnagar village.

But not everyone in the region has the same experience. Kasthuriammal, a resident of Nallur in the district, says that her village is in a pitiable state. “We don’t get Hogenakkal water or Cauvery water. We were told that the government is supposed to supply Cauvery water to us, but that too doesn’t come frequently, we are lucky if the tankers come once in two days for us to fill water. How are we supposed to live like this?” laments the 65-year-old woman. Karnataka was ordered to release 9.19 tmcft to Tamil Nadu by the Cauvery Water Management Authority for the month of June. However, Karnataka had released only 1.16 tmcft in the first ten days of June.

Traveling long distances for poor quality water

The large white structure of the water tank looms over the village of Anjaathumile. A young girl clad in a red kurta, her head covered with a scarf to protect against the heat, was seated next to a wooden basement-like structure.

Inside the structure there is a motor which seems to be connected to the tank underground.  A young, frail girl is sitting inside the structure and as the motor leaks water, a few drops at a time, the girl carefully scoops it up and into a plastic pot which she has covered with a dupatta, acting as a makeshift filter.

“They don’t know that we are collecting water like this,” the 16-year-old girl giggles nervously, referring to their family. She is one of many young people in the village who are forced to go hunting for water in neighboring localities.

Further down from the tank is another ‘mini’ tank with a few residents lining up with plastic pots, which has grown to be a familiar sight now. “When there is electricity, we are able to get water using the motor for the mini tank, but that too is usually infrequent. People come from as far away as 7 km for a mere two pots of water,” says 40-year-old Lakshmi as she picks up a pot filled with water.

Standing next in line is a man who has brought four water pots on his bike, much like Kavitha in Erudukuttahalli. “There are six of us at home, including young children, and we have to manage with this amount of water until we can manage to get some again,” he says as he ties one last filled pot to his bike before starting on his way home.