For almost three years, bathing has been a luxury for Manjuben Jhala.

The 50-year-old dairy farmer from Sowarada village has spent all her summer days herding cattle across the barren landscape of Gujarat’s Jamnagar district, in search of fodder and a few scoops of water for her frail animals. Walking for hours in the scorching sun would leave her dusty and sweaty, but there would be no relief waiting for her at home.

“When there is barely enough water for my family to drink and cook with, how can we think of having a bath?” said Jhala, a Dalit who lives with her husband, son, and daughter in a small brick hut. “Like most people in the village, we have been bathing once a week.”

On the morning of June 19, as the season’s first pre-monsoon drizzle made a brief appearance in Jamnagar, the villagers of Sowarada tried not to let their hopes up too high. The meteorological department has predicted a good monsoon this year, one that Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and other famously drought-hit states have been looking forward to for relief. But in Saurashtra, the region in western Gujarat where Jamnagar is located, farmers are all too aware that one good monsoon will not be enough to make up for the severe scarcity of resources, which have been aggravated by the state government’s refusal to declare a drought. When a state officially declares drought, the Centre and state roll out a series of contingency measures to provide food, drinking water, employment and fodder for livestock in order to mitigate the effects of drought.

In April, in the midst of pressure from the Supreme Court, the Gujarat government declared a state of “semi-scarcity” in 623 of its villages. Since then, that figure has been raised to 1,100 villages in Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat. But the government still doesn’t believe that the state’s rainfall deficit in the last monsoon was acute enough to announce a drought.

On the ground, however, farmers and labourers have experienced poor rainfall for three consecutive monsoons, leading to increasingly low crop yields, a rise in distress migration and debt and dwindling reserves of drinking water, fodder and food. Even if the government and the national media may have ignored their plight, farmers say Saurashtra has been in a state of drought for at least three years.

Water every four or five days

Saurashtra is a rain-deficit region with largely rocky soil, but during periods of good rainfall, it is well known for its export-quality groundnuts and cotton. When it doesn’t rain well, the region’s towns and villages have to often rely on the water of the Narmada river which is still far from plentiful despite promises made by the Gujarat government when it began the Sardar Sarovar dam project more than two decades ago.

The state was supposed to construct sub-branch canals that would bring the dam’s water to villages across Saurashtra, but in districts like Jamnagar, these canals barely reach 30 or 40 villages.

“In these three years of dushkaal [drought], all our local lakes and rivers have completely dried up,” said Mahesh Aahir, a cotton farmer from Vijarkhi, a large village of 3,000 people in Jamnagar district. Right next to the village is Vijarkhi dam, a reservoir that used to supply water to at least six neighbouring villages before it dried up in 2013. “Since then, the local government has been assuring us constantly that our dam will be connected to the Narmada canals. But nothing has happened so far, and we have to depend on the tankers they send once a day.”

Sowarada, meanwhile, does have a Narmada water pipeline running a few kilometres away from the village. “Most of the time, this pipeline does not have water,” said Ashwin Aahir, a farmer with three acres of land in Sowarada. “When it does, it’s mostly every four or five days, and we have to save that water for our families and our cattle to drink. All of last year, we have had no water for agriculture.”

In the neighbouring Dwarka district, the situation is worse: a Narmada pipeline passes through Khambaliya taluka, but in many villages, it supplies barely 50 litres of water per family every five days. “This is not even enough for us, forget the animals,” said Ramshibhai Chawda, a farmer from Vadatra village in Khambaliya.

At Jamnagar’s block development office, deputy block officer Kirit Sanghvi claimed that the work on building sub-branch canals from the Sardar Sarovar dam is going on very well. “Just 38 villages out of 100 in this taluka need tanker water from us, which we are providing,” said Sanghvi. “The rest are all already connected to the Narmada.”

A half-built dam

Not all villages in Jamnagar, however, are hoping to be linked to the Narmada. Bhelsan, Sumri and Waghira are among 10 villages that had pinned their hopes on the construction of the Waghira dam on a local river – construction that had come to a standstill 15 years ago.

“The work stopped because the government doesn’t want to pay adequate compensation to some families whose homes will be submerged by the reservoir,” said Nathabhai Lokhil from Bhelsan. “Because of this, we are entirely dependent on the monsoon for agriculture and have had no good harvests in the past three years.”

At the block office, Sanghvi seemed to be completely oblivious to the photographic evidence of the unfinished Waghira dam. “The construction of that dam is complete," he said. "It will definitely have water by the end of the monsoon this year."

All photographs by Aarefa Johari.

This is the first story of a series on drought in Gujarat.