Heat, water woes and coronavirus: India’s perfect storm

NEW DELHI (AFP) – Bollywood stars and political leaders urged Indians to wash their hands to protect against coronavirus but that’s a pipe dream for slum-dwellers like Bala Devi, now sweltering through a summer heatwave.

The 44-year-old widow and her family of eight are among tens of millions of people facing months of torrid weather while stuck at home, in lockdown, without regular access to clean water to keep cool and wash.

“It is so hot the children keep asking for water to drink. How can I give them water for washing their hands when we don’t have even enough water to drink?” Devi said at her cramped home in New Delhi.

“Every drop of water is a luxury for us. We can’t afford to spend it on bathing,” she told AFP, pinching her nose at the waft of clogged drains as unwashed children milled around her.

Outside it is around 45 degrees Celsius but her one-bedroom tenement house has just an improvised ceiling fan to keep its occupants cool.

Residents leave after they filled cans from a water distribution tanker in New Delhi. PHOTOS: AFP
Residents load a tricycle after they filled bottles and cans from a water distribution tanker

There is a piped water connection but the supply is extremely erratic and a pump connected to the groundwater mostly spews air. Her family uses a common public toilet and their “bathroom” is a bucket behind a curtain.

“If we can’t wash and clean and there is filth everywhere, obviously the virus will attack us, but what can we do?” asked Devi’s neighbour Anita Bisht.

“Already our children are falling sick,” she added, her toddler hanging from her arms.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, water was in short supply for the 100 million people living in India’s urban slums.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government listed water infrastructure as a key priority, promising to reach 145 million rural households by 2024.

But currently roughly a third of the country’s 1.3 billion people cut back on washing and bathing during summer as taps run dry.

Trucks deliver water to areas suffering shortfalls during the summer months but fights regularly break out in long queues to the tap.

Last year the southern city of Chennai ran out of water entirely.

Heatwaves are increasing in frequency, and this week the mercury hit 50 Celsius in western Rajasthan state. Parts of Delhi recorded their hottest May temperatures in almost 20 years.

Heat stress killed around 3,500 people around the country since 2015, according to government figures, while farmers killed themselves because of droughts ravaging their crops.

Only around seven per cent of Indian households have air conditioning, despite rising incomes making the luxury more affordable for some.

Tarun Gopalakrishnan from the Centre for Science and Environment think-tank said India must brace for frequent periods of extreme heat in the future.

“When we look at the seasonal averages we sometimes miss the picture that the extremes are increasing, causing massive social disruptions,” he told AFP.

India’s coronavirus lockdown is slowly being eased but the restrictions have compounded the miseries of the current heatwave.

In Delhi, a sprawling city teeming with 20 million people, demand for water outstrips supply by an estimated 760 million litres per day.

The daily wait for water trucks in the capital has become even worse since the pandemic hit the city.

Lining up for hours with plastic buckets and bottles, slum dwellers are now meant to stand a suitable distance apart – if the government truck ever comes.

Lakhpat, a resident of the Sanjay Niwas slum settlement, recently waited in vain for over two hours with dozens of others for the scheduled water tanker to arrive.

“Because of the water problem we can’t follow social distancing rules. People stick together closely in the mad rush to get their buckets filled first,” he said.