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Saturday, 29 April, 2000, 14:19 GMT 15:19 UK
Praying for rain
Farmers using a dead tree and a pulley try to retrieve water from an almost dry well
People are having to dig deeper and deeper to find water
By Daniel Lak in Rajkot, India

India's latest drought is said to be the worst in a century in many areas.

Tens of thousands of cattle are the main casualties so far, but it is still a month and a half at least until the monsoon rains are due in the north western Indian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. It is slightly less than that in Andhra Pradesh in the south, which is also struggling with water shortages.

A future where violence, even civil war over water cannot be ruled out.

Many of the areas worst affected are dry and arid at the best of times.

One of the problems in this region is that people are accustomed to looking natural disasters in the face, and are slow to seek help. An exception was last year's cyclone in Orissa where the wrath of nature was just too devastating, and its victims too alienated by poverty, to cope with much of anything.

But here in Rajkot near the coast of northern Gujarat the local people are made of sterner stuff. Yes, it is parched and devastatingly dry here. You have to walk for miles to find a well that gives water, and it is probably going to be as deep as a 10-storey building.

Rivers, ponds and reservoirs have been dried up for more than a year and a half, since the first time the monsoon failed here in 1998.

Proud people

But this is not the Horn of Africa, nor Orissa. I spent two days travelling on bumpy, dusty roads, visiting village after village and hearing about people's hardships. Unbelievably, no one asked for more aid or help.

People usually boasted about how they were coping. When you mentioned the government, a sneer or a shake of the head was the most frequent response. Some even said that officials were doing the best they could, even if it was not enough.

A man carries home a small pot of drinking water after a five mile walk
Villagers may have to walk many miles to find water
How often do you hear that during a natural calamity? A local environmentalist and historian gave me some of the answers I was looking for. He said it had been dry and dusty here for generations. This area is almost a desert, yet government subsidies and hard working farmers had turned it into productive peanut and cotton country.

That was part of the problem. Both crops soak up water like a sponge, and a dry year, a less than ample monsoon, meant farmers drilled more and ever deeper wells to suck up more ground water.

Then there was the legacy of this place, known historically as Saurashtra. Of the more than 500 princely states in pre-independence India, 237 of them were here - most little more than a town with a palace and a maharajah. People are still proud of that local independence, my friend said, they only work together if they have to. Something like a creeping acute water shortage required co-operation and political subtleties that were just not part of the agenda here.

So for the moment, the tough, hardy individualists of Saurashtra are coping with this drought, and worsening crisis. But for how much longer? Huge swathes of south Asia are literally drying up, not just the drought-prone bits of Gujarat.

'No easy solution'

This current shortage is also hitting Afghanistan and remote parts of Iran and Pakistan. The World Bank recently identified this region, and specifically densely populated India as the place most likely to have wars over water in the 21st Century. Governments seem barely able to keep up with the current shortages, let alone plan for a future where violence, even civil war over water cannot be ruled out.

Ask 100 people about what should be done, and you get 200 answers. Rich farmers say it is OK, the monsoon will replenish water supplies, if it comes on time or at all this year. The poor say look at the sky and say the Gujarati version of "whatever will be, will be."

Unlike other drought affected areas, there have not been lots of poor people from here heading to find work in the city, but they will if they have to. That is the local, can-do spirit.

And the environmentalists vary between bleak optimism - as the burgeoning global market economy demands huge cash crops with fewer and fewer farmers and farm labourers - and a sense that they can get over this if they start conserving water now. The government just announces another aid package, and says it will get water to the people come what may.

The truth is probably a mix of all of those, that the resilience of Indians has both helped them cope and cost them dearly. That India's march to the world economy is taking no prisoners, making many rich and many more even poorer. And that governments are getting left behind, as this drought is demonstrating.

Given all of that, I think for the moment, we should all join the people of Gujarat, Rajasthan and drought affected areas, and pray for rain.

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