The southern state of Kerala is reeling under severe drought and there is perhaps nothing more horrifying than people being forced to leave behind their homes to go in search of water.
"We are humans, we need water to survive, don't we?" asks 60-year-old Chinna, a resident of Maniyankinar tribal colony in Kerala's Thrissur district. Chinna has a towel draped over her head to protect her from the scorching heat and lifts her right arm to her forehead to block the sunlight from blinding her vision as she speaks.
The tribal colony that houses 64 families is situated in Vaniyampara near the catchment area of Peechi dam. According to officials from the Irrigation department, the water level at Peechi dam stands at 64.91 meters (as on April 26), which they say is the lowest in the last few years.
The colony has three wells, and all three have dried up. This has forced Chinna and nine other families to climb down from the forest and live in makeshift huts on the catchment area of Peechi dam, nearly four kilometers away.
Catchment area of 107.95 Km square
With the summer heat blazing over the district, the water in the catchment area has long been used and dried up. What now remains, is a thin stream of water.
Thirty-six-year-old Sunitha spends most of her time drawing water from a 3-feet deep hole she dug up in front of her hut.
According to data available with the Indian Meteorological Department, this central district is one of the districts in the state that has got deficient rainfall in the past year. The district saw deficient rainfall both in the south-west monsoon and the north-east monsoon last year. From March 1 to April 26, the district has received 54.5 mm of actual rainfall, as opposed to the normal rainfall of 84 mm.
Not enough water
In January, when two of the wells dried up, ten families soon wrapped up their essentials in a cloth, locked up their homes and left the colony.
At the time, the nearest point with water available was in the catchment area of Peechi dam, the source of drinking water for the city of Thrissur.
"We got some dried coconut leaves and tarpaulin sheets and put up a hut here. When we came here in the first week of February, this area was filled with water up to our hut," Sunitha points to her hut on the one end of the land.
Sunitha and her husband Ratheesh lives in this hut with their three children
With that water too drying up, the families have dug a 3-feet hole outside their huts to draw water for all purposes.
After the crisis was brought to the notice of the panchayat officials, tankers are now supplying 200 l of water to the colony on most days. However, this is hardly sufficient for all the people and the cattle, Sunitha's husband Ratheesh points out.
"A few families went back to the colony after the panchayat began sending water tankers. But the water is not enough for everyone and we decided to stay back. In a 700 ml water drum, they would only fill half of it. We have to use this water for everything, from drinking to bathing to washing clothes and for our cattle," 41-year-old Parvathy says.
Parvathy has six children, all of whom stay in a hostel in Pattikkad to attend school. With the schools shutting for summer vacations, the children too have returned, adding to the water requirements of her household.
Every family in the colony owns two cows each. It was through a joint scheme by the panchayat and Milma (milk federation), that the families were given two cows each on a subsidized rate.
The milk is then given to the Milma kiosk set up in the colony. This was done to provide an alternate livelihood for the members of the tribal colony.
"We used to go to the forest, collect herbs and honey and sell it outside to earn a living. Last year, the panchayat launched a scheme under which we were all given cattle. They also provide fodder for the cattle on a monthly basis and pay us Rs 100 a day for looking after the cow. But what about water for the cattle?" 45-year-old Sathyabhama asks.
Most of the residents complain of black patches on their skin, possibly due to the heat. They also complain of constant itching after taking bath in the water collected from the pits they have dug up.
The heat has begun to take a toll on the health of the cattle too. During the day, the cows are taken inside the forest, in search of shade.
"Earlier I used to get somewhere between 8-10 liters of milk from both the cows. But now, it has come down to 3-4 liters. One of my cows recently gave birth and the calf too needs milk. Will we all die of this heat?" asks Parvathy.
The members of the colony who have relocated are now forced to defecate in the open. Though there are toilets built inside the colony, there is no water to use and clean them.
"For now, this vast expanse of land is our toilet," Parvathy rues.
She is the only one who has built a makeshift bathroom with coconut leaves adjacent to her house.
Her dog Mani has made this shed his home; for it is there that the ground is cool at least for a few hours in the day.
Officials promise action
Pananchery panchayat president Anitha KV told The News Minute that necessary measures to tackle the water crisis had been made.
"We are sending water tankers every day to fulfill their water requirements. We took swift action when we came to know that some families have relocated to the catchment area. Last month, we allotted Rs 15 lakh for a project and have started digging up a pond and a well in the colony that will meet all their water requirements in the future," Anitha said.
The residents, however, live in the hope that the rain would come fill their wells and then they can go back to their homes in the colony.