The drought currently gripping India has already affected 330 million people across a quarter of the country and with the relieving monsoon not expected for at least 7 weeks this looks set to surpass the recent disasters experienced in 2009, 2004, & 2002.Much has been written regarding this environmental crisis however the disaster is particularly severe for the youngest in society; one significant environmental shock can leave an irrevocable scar on a child’s development. The key areas at risk are primarily the child’s health and secondly the disruption to the child’s education.
There are two key influences wrought by drought on any affected child’s life; income and food, and changes in disease environment. Both the former and the latter are also linked a third significant effect which is disruption to a child’s education.In a country as hot as India drought is nothing new however due to the advances made in healthcare and particularly child-mortality the drought of 2016 will almost certainly affect more children than any other.
The most obvious impact will be to a child’s nourishment as lack of water affects not only drinking but also food supplies. Rural areas are heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture for both sustenance and income. Villagers find themselves in a dangerous cycle; as crops fail they have less income to feed themselves, and also the price of replacement foods rises as wider-spread supply falls. There has been a growing trend of urban migration for men in recent years however the impact of drought conditions has also pushed women towards metropolitan areas in search of work to supplement the family budget. As a result children are left behind often to care for ageing relatives and sometimes putting their lives at risk to collect water from far-flung sources in the heat of the day.
With lesser levels of sustenance and greater exertion comes the threat of disease and infection as malnourished children are significantly more likely to succumb to illness. To make matters worse a paucity of water often leads people to drink whatever is available which is likely to be of poorer quality and increasingly rife with waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera. Children are intrinsically more likely to contract and succumb to such illnesses as their bodies are still developing.
Drought can wreak havoc on a child’s education as exams always fall during the hottest season.To compound matters, as Indian education is traditionally geared towards examinations (90% of grades are exam weighted),it is intrinsically the most crucial period of a child’s school year that is affected. Furthermore, in the face of such conditions schools in severely affected areas have been told to conclude the school year early to reduce the strain on water supplies. The smallest, rural schools are hit the hardest at a time when their pupils will be sitting exams that could affect the rest of their lives as they seek highly coveted places at the best schools.Once again, drought hits the poorest in society hardest and sadly it is these children who rely heaviest on education to provide them with a brighter future.
The crisis has certainly not been helped by the misuse of existing ground water in for short-term financial gains. Prominent campaigner Rajendra Singh has been particularly critical of the water-intensive crops (i.e. sugarcane) that have been grown in the worst affected areas. He has also noted that much of the worst offending farmland is under ownership of the political elites. The result has been a 72% drop in underground water sources across India, the highest depletion rate in the world.
Although coming at a heavy price, there is one possible benefit that can be reaped from such times; raising awareness for the value of water conservation. A number of schools and local communities in less affected areas have undertaken water saving schemes to benefit those less fortunate. Furthermore, it serves as a timely reminder of the Swachh Barat (Clean India) movement, particularly how is in everyone’s interest to clean India’s major waterways; the Yamuna and Ganges. We can only hope that increased attention and awareness to such worthwhile causes can be a by-product of what is clearly a humanitarian catastrophe.
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