By Shuriah Niazi
TIKAMGARH, India, May 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Authorities in this drought-parched city in central India have deployed round-the-clock armed guards at a river-fed community reservoir to prevent farmers from siphoning the remaining water for irrigation.
With rainfall in Tikamgarh district this year 52 percent below average - the second dry year for the area - water is now available to city residents only sporadically, with fears even that may run out during the peak heat months of May and June, authorities say.
Forty-seven-year-old Suryakant Tiwari, one city resident, said his family and many others now have drinking and household water supplied only once every five days.
"I have not seen such a condition in my lifetime. Almost every water source in the area has dried up. We don't know how we will survive," Tiwari he said.
Farmers have been prohibited from drawing water from reservoirs to irrigate their crops. But Tikamgarh Municipal Corporation officials fear farmers from adjoining Uttar Pradesh state - whose farms border the Bari Ghat dam, fed by the Jumuniya River - are poaching water to try to keep their crops alive.
"If crops continue to be irrigated using the river water, it is not going to last long and there will be severe crisis during the summer season," warned Laxmi Giri, the Tikamgahr municipal corporation president. "Our priority is to supply drinking water to the people."
The Jamuniya River is the only source of drinking water for over 100,000 people in Tikamgarh, she said.
But "farmers of the neighbouring state try to open the gates of the dam and draw water illegally using pipelines. We're therefore compelled to deploy guards," Giri said.
'NEVER BEEN SO BAD'
Tikamgarh is hardly alone. The drought-ravaged Bundelkhand, a region in central India spread over the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, is suffering some of the worst drought in memory.
Crops in the area have been badly hit, cattle are dying of thirst and lack of grazing, and there are growing fears that even drinking water could run dry before the monsoon is expected to begin in June.
"All the ponds, reservoirs and water bodies which earlier supplied water in areas of Tikamgarh have dried up. With no water available for irrigation, farmers have abandoned their crops and are migrating to nearby urban areas in search of livelihood and for sustenance. Life is really hard for them," said Rajendra Adhvrayu, a local journalist who writes on water issues in the region.
"The situation has never been so bad," he added. "This is for the first time that the tussle over water has degenerated into a battle of sorts. We fear the situation will be grave during the coming months."
The Jamuniya River separates Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh states along some of its length. A 1974 water sharing pact gives Madhya Pradesh 17 percent of the water stored in the Jamuniya Dam in Uttar Pradesh.
Madhya Pradesh stores its share in five dams, including the Bari Ghat. But this year, water is available only in Bari Ghat dam. Water in the four other dams - Harpura, Charpuva, Madiya and Sudan - has run out.
Giri said authorities in Tikamgarh had shut off the electrical supply to farmers in neighbourhing Uttar Pradesh to try to prevent pumping of water from the dam for irrigation.
Farmers have instead turned to using diesel pumps to pull water from the reservoir, he said. "The administration has failed to convince them not to draw water illegally from the dam," she said.
Meanwhile, the Indian Met Department's prediction that the entire country could be abnormally hot in May and June, with longer and more severe heat waves, has unnerved many people in the Bundelkhand.
India's weather office has predicted that monsoon rains are likely to be above average this year, a potential source of relief. But the rains, normally due the second week of June, have been regularly delayed in recent years.
Jayant Verma, a resident of Tikamgarh, said moving elsewhere to find water, even temporarily, is not an option for many families.
"My children attend the school here. I have a job here. I can't go to any other place along with my family. I don't know what we shall do. The government has failed to provide any relief so far," he said.
The search for water has become so intense that in many places - including Madhya Pradesh's Dindori district - children are descending into deep, almost-dry wells to try to fetch what little water is available, residents said.
In some areas of the Bundelkhand, farmers have been unable to sow any crops this year, they said, and animals are at risk.
"Animals are dying without water. We can't do anything," said Kanta Prasad, a resident of the Jatara sub-district of Tikamgarh. "If we give water to anmals, there'll be none left for us. We're feeling so helpless. Every drop of water counts."
The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan has promised that drinking water will be made available to those who need it. He said the government has prepared a contingency plan to address the worsening drought, and announced a high-level review of the situation in the region.
Residents, meanwhile, can do little but wait for rain, and worry.
"What will happen if the monsoon is delayed?" asked Adhvrayu. "Or it plays truant, as in previous years?"
(Reporting by Shuriah Niazi; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)