Mandya District, Karnataka, India—Sowbhagyamma wears her husband’s checked shirt on top of her sari. Tying a towel to her head so that it fully covers her thick black hair, she plunges into a large swamp of weeds.
“This is dirty work. I want to cover my body as much as possible,” she explains.
Sowbhagyamma is one of dozens of women working under the scorching sun every day to clear weeds, mud, and pebbles from a 6.5-acre plot in the Mandya District of southern Karnataka state, India.
“Only older people in this village remember that this used to be a lake,” says Shankrappa Gowda, the contractor for project.
Three thousand women are enrolled in the effort to revive lakes, ponds, and irrigation tanks in 31 villages across the district – crucial work in a region facing drought for the third year in a row, the worst in decades. Today, the lakes are just dry, empty beds. But cleared of the silt that’s accumulated over the years, the lakes will store more rainwater, they hope – when it rains again.
India relies on two monsoons: the southwestern and the northeastern. Neither produced much rain last year, leading to a severe water crisis in India’s southern states – a region home to more than 150 million people. In April, the local government announced that water would be provided only for drinking purposes. Reservoirs in the region’s five states had just 8 percent of their total storage capacity in early June, according to a report from the Central Water Commission. In Karnataka this spring, all irrigation tanks in several districts went completely dry.
Southern India relies heavily on agriculture for employment, and its states are large cultivators of rice, a staple grain. Now, thousands of acres have been left waterless. In just over a year, more than 500 farmers’ suicides have been attributed to drought-related woes.
It’s a problem that touches almost everyone. But “when the farm community is affected, it is always the women who get their hands dirty to get work done,” says Sowbhagyamma.
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