For four months, Achini Dinesha’s life has revolved around water – or, more precisely, the lack of it.

Bathing in privacy and safety is now a matter of careful planning and lucky timing for the 32-year-old mother of two small children. It also involves an arduous trek of 7 km from her house in the village of Kiriyankale, in Sri Lanka’s North Western Province, to the nearest full waterhole.

“I have to make sure that I go there when there is daylight, when other women are around, when my neighbours can travel with me and when there is one neighbour who can look after my kids,” told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This has been her routine since April, when the well in her backyard went dry. She reckons that the last significant rains in Kiriyankale fell at least 14 months back, during the southwestern monsoon in July 2016.

“First, when the November rains failed, we thought we could manage till this April, but the monsoon failed and everything has gone dry,” Dinesha’s neighbour Sarojini Ariyapala said.

The drought, described by the United Nations as the country’s worst in 40 years, has caused huge problems in 20 of the country’s 25 districts.

The government says that over 2.2 million people were affected at its height, mainly in rural areas, and more than 40 percent of the vital rice harvest is likely to be lost this year.

Despite heavy rains in some parts of the country in July and intermittent rains since then, the country is likely to remain short of water until the next big rains, expected in October, according to Anura Priyadarashana Yapa, the country’s disaster management minister.

Work for women

In rural areas, much of the burden of making sure there is sufficient safe water falls on women, who are responsible for maintaining the household and caring for children.

Dinesha’s husband left the village about three months ago, when the family’s vegetable plots withered. He now works as a driver in a city about 50km away and only returns home once a week.

Both Dinesha and Ariyapala have had their routines dramatically disrupted by the drought. Ariyapala says making the long trip for a bath is almost no longer worth it.

“It serves no purpose, really. When you return home you are covered in a layer of dust and looking bright brown,” she said.

The women also complain that dozens of people from villages near the waterhole now gather there to bathe, which has led to a loss of privacy. The women say they also must leave their children at home as they cannot manage the long walk.

“We buy water from passing tankers for them and for household work,” Ariyapala said.

The two women wait at the roadside at least two hours every other day to flag down the water tankers that pass, transporting drinking water.

Each five-litre plastic bottle costs 100-150 Sri Lankan rupees, and both families spend around 4,000-5,000 rupees on water each month – a sum they can ill afford when their income is dropping due to poor harvests.

If Ariyapala misses the tanker, she must hire a vehicle to go in search of water.

Dinesha said that after meeting the tanker she must load a wheelbarrow with eight heavy bottles and push it the half kilometre (one third of a mile) back to her house.

“This will break my back if I do this for longer,” she complained. “Who would have thought that water would make life this tiring?”

Rajakumar Jayathilaka (right), 77, of Adigama, a drought-hit village in Sri Lanka's North Western province, waits with others for a water delivery tanker that is five hours late. Photo credit: Amantha Perera/Thomas Reuters Foundation

Animal encounters

In villages that lie further inland and closer to jungle areas, the search for water can be far riskier. Here humans and animals fight over whatever remains in rivers and ponds.

Herds of elephants are the most dangerous as they converge on waterholes, or venture into human habitats looking for water.

In August, two elephants walked onto the main road near the village of Adigama and met two people, one of whom died in the ensuing confrontation.

“They usually don’t come into villages when it’s daylight. Now they are doing that because they are desperate, like us,” said 77-year-old Adigama resident Rajakumar Jayathilaka.

Even a little drizzle can be dangerous, he said. Deadly snakes increasingly venture into puddles on the roads to quench their thirst, putting people walking there at risk.

“Until the big rains come and the jungle comes back, it is man versus beast right now,” Jayathilaka said.

This article first appeared on Thomas Reuters Foundation News.