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Parched and Forgotten: The Everyday Struggle for Water in the Villages of the Kashmir Valley

For over 80 villages in the Kashmir Valley, potable drinking water is an elusive dream. Men, women and children walk up to five kilometres everyday along treacherous paths amidst fear of wild animals to collect water.
Elderly women in Anderwan receiving water from plastic drums placed alongside road by villagers. Photo: Junaid Manzoor Dar.

Srinagar: Venturing into the heart of forgotten villages of the Kashmir Valley reveals that a significant number of villages are trapped in a relentless struggle for survival, deprived of the most fundamental human need: clean potable water.

Eighty-two villages in different pockets of Kashmir valley are left parched and forgotten, devoid of the most basic necessity of life. They have been grappling with the harsh realities of water scarcity, being forced to undertake treacherous journeys spanning hours to reach distant and polluted water sources.

While the world gazes at the enchanting beauty of the region, a different story unfolds, one of desperation and resilience. For decades, dozens of forgotten villages have relied on contaminated water sources, braving the dangers of waterborne diseases and risking their lives daily. The streams that once provided life-sustaining sustenance have transformed into breeding grounds for ailments, silently robbing the villagers of their health and hope.

A battle against nature

Anderwan, a remote village in South Kashmir’s Anantnag nestled in the heart of the Kokernag spring, boasts of Asia’s largest Trout Fish farm, caught in the cruel grip of an unforgiving water crisis. With no potable water supply, the villagers of Anderwan endure unimaginable hardships as they embark on treacherous journeys to secure the very essence of life.

For the 400 inhabitants residing in this serene village, obtaining water is a daily struggle, tainted by danger and deprivation.

The women of Anderwan shoulder the burden of this water crisis, their daily lives punctuated by the arduous task of fetching water from a polluted source, regardless of the season.

Twice a day, the women of the village embark on this formidable journey, their pitchers balanced precariously on their heads as they navigate a labyrinth of rugged paths and slippery slopes.

Zareena Begum, an elderly woman, describes the hardship they endure. “We have been fetching water in pitchers all our lives, walking five kilometers down the hillock, traversing dense cornfields. Every day, the women make two trips, morning and evening, just to meet the basic needs of cooking and drinking.”

The time spent collecting water takes its toll on the residents, with more than five hours of their daily routine dedicated solely to this laborious task.

A local resident Qaiser Ahmad Lone(28) told The Wire that the women of Anderwan village, embark on a daily pilgrimage, not to a holy shrine, but to a nearby water source.

He said that their pilgrimage is not borne out of devotion, but out of necessity. With empty vessels balanced delicately on their heads, these women walk for miles, tracing the arduous paths carved by countless footsteps before them. Their destination is not a place of spiritual solace, but a stagnant pool or a trickling stream that offers a meagre supply of water, tainted and unclean.

For Farida Bano, a 55-year-old woman of this isolated hamlet, the arduous task of fetching water has become a battle against nature itself, with every journey fraught with danger and the haunting memories of a tragic incident that forever changed her life.

‘’My village has never seen water,” Farida said.

The presence of wild animals adds an additional layer of peril to their already precarious routine.

As the biting winter winds howl through the mountains, Farida’s voice takes on a somber tone. “The task of fetching water becomes riskier during the winter months, the track downhill becomes slippery, and many women have suffered fractures after falling. Bears and leopards roam our village, even during daylight hours, instilling fear and constant vigilance,” she says, her eyes reflecting the memories of fear.

Farida’s daughter, a victim of one such encounter, stands as a tragic testament to the dangers that loom. In 2014, while accompanying her mother to fetch water from the nallah, a bear pounced on her with savage ferocity, leaving her grievously wounded. The attack, swift and merciless, forever altered the course of her young life. “Her head and leg suffered extensive damage, and since that day, my daughter remains handicapped, forever burdened by the scars inflicted by that fateful encounter,” Farida reveals.

“Had there been a water supply to our households, my daughter would not have met such a fate,” she said.

Showkat Ahmad, a Sarpanch of Anderwan, said that the villagers have kept plastic bins on the roadside near their houses which are occasionally filled by the water tanker of the Jal Shakti department.

“Most of the population in Anderwan reside below the poverty threshold and depend on daily earnings. Despite financial constraints, we have collectively gathered funds to purchase plastic drums strategically placed by the villagers along the roadside. The water tankers from the Jal Shakti department arrive after every 10 days to replenish the plastic drums with water, but with such a burgeoning population how it can satiate our insatiable needs,” the sarpanch said, adding that women in our village embark on a journey every morning at 7 am to fetch water, traveling a distance of five kilometers, and return home by 12 pm.

Elderly women in Anderwan receive water from plastic drums placed alongside the road by villagers. Photo: Junaid Manzoor Dar.

‘’The children of our village devote a significant amount of their time in fetching water from the stream, leaving them with little time to concentrate on their studies. Regardless of assurances made by politicians and local officials, the long-standing promise of providing water to our village remains unfulfilled till date,” he said.

“During our visit to Anderwan with my team to identify suitable sites for borewells, I felt thirsty and requested a glass of water. To my surprise, the villagers said that they were facing a severe water shortage and didn’t have any water available,” an assistant executive engineer of groundwater South Kashmir said. He, however, confirmed that borewells for the village were already approved by authorities under JJM program.

“We are currently working with hydrological, geology and mining departments to determine suitable locations for the borewells where water availability is likely. However, we have not yet identified any area in the mountainous village where there is a potential for water,” he said.

Feroz Ahmad Mallah, an assistant Executive Engineer (AEE) in Jal Shakti Department sub-division Kokernag, acknowledged the dire water scarcity faced by the Anderwan village for decades of time.

“Once the mechanical department of Jal Shakti Department completes the bore welling process, water will be sourced and distributed to the village,” he said, adding that, the village has been incorporated into the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) scheme, with a detailed project report already submitted and tenders awarded to a local contractor.

A similar tale across the Kashmir Valley

As one strolls through the dusty streets of Arwani Village of South Kashmir’s Anantnag, the sight of villagers maneuvering motorcycles and other vehicles with empty cans strapped to their backs has become an all too familiar scene. It has around 1,400 households out of which 1,000 households lack any water source nearby. These courageous villagers embark on daily quests to secure the elixir of life – water – for their loved ones.

Teenagers navigate motorcycles laden with empty cans, braving daily adventures to secure the elixir of life – water – for their cherished families. Photo: Junaid Manzoor Dar.

Malik Owais (30), a devoted family member with an unyielding determination, shared his own experiences in this battle against water scarcity. “My brother has kept a can for potable water in his car and wherever he goes, he brings back drinking water for the family,” Owais’s words resonate with the struggles faced by countless residents.

Malik Tawseef, a young student from Arwani, voiced the collective frustration by stating that the village has never witnessed a proper water supply. As a result, the locals are compelled to fetch water from tube wells, which unfortunately contain high levels of iron, and from the River Vishaw, known for its alarming concentration of fecal matter.

“Drinking this contaminated water has inflicted numerous health problems upon the villagers, leaving them with no alternative,” Tawseef said.

“I sought medical consultation from a doctor due to my stomach ailment, and the doctor attributed the cause of my condition to the consumption of water contaminated with harmful substances,” Tawseef said.

He further said that they have repeatedly pleaded with higher authorities to urgently address this issue, but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears, leaving the villagers in a dire situation. Moreover, the scarcity of water hampers other essential household needs, exacerbating the villagers’ predicament. They are compelled to embark on arduous journeys, covering extensive distances in private vehicles, to procure potable water. The financial burden associated with this endeavour further exacerbates their woes, placing an undue strain on their already meager resources, he said.

Locals informed The Wire that despite the filtration plant being allocated to their village a few years back, the authorities have yet to hand it over to the contractors for further implementation.

Another tale from Sursuna Village, nestled in South Kashmir’s Anantnag, has become a haunting metaphor for the challenges faced by villagers battling water scarcity. For the past nine years, the villagers have relied on a single water tanker dispatched by the Jal Shakti Department every two days, attempting to satiate their basic need for potable water. However, the reality on the ground tells a different tale, one that is marked by the desperate struggle of its inhabitants.

Mehbooba (46), a determined mother from Sursuna village with dreams of a better future for her daughter, finds herself caught in the arduous task of fetching water. Every time the water tanker arrives, she joins the long queue of women, patiently waiting for several hours to fill their buckets and utensils. It is a routine that has become etched into the lives of the villagers, a relentless battle for access to the most essential resource for survival.

Women in Sursuna Anantnag fetching water from water Tanker. Photo: Junaid Manzoor Dar

The wait is particularly excruciating for Mehbooba, who must ensure her daughter, a school-going girl, has a bottle of water to sustain her through the day. With no certainty of when the water tanker would arrive or how long the line would stretch, Mehbooba finds herself sacrificing precious hours that could be spent on other productive endeavours. Yet, she perseveres, her determination unwavering, as she envisions a brighter future for her child.

An elderly man, Abdul Rashid said that only 30% of the households have access to tube wells, which provide a limited supply of water for bathing and washing purposes. The remaining 70% of villagers do not even have access to contaminated water for their daily household necessities.

Umar Ahmad Khanday, Lumbardar of the village said that initially, the village received water from its adjoining hamlet Shoul under the water supply scheme However, in 2014, this scheme was deemed unsafe due to the detection of alarmingly high levels of iron, leading to a distressing outcome whereby a staggering 90% of the local populace suffered from kidney stones.

“Filtration plant has been already sanctioned to the village some six years back but of no use, the authorities have yet to hand it over to the contractors for further implementation,’’ Lumbardar said.

It is the same story in the case of Humpora village in the Langate tehsil of North Kashmir’s Kupwara district, which is known for its breathtaking views. Saleema, an elderly woman, embarks on her daily journey as the first rays of dawn grace the horizon. Her path unfolds before her, an arduous task that has seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of her existence.

 Saleema finds herself trekking a kilometer’s distance to a nearby canal, solely to procure water for her family’s essential needs. This predicament is exacerbated by the absence of functional tap water connections within the confines of her humble abode, an agonising daily predicament shared by every resident of Humpora village.

“The sheer act of walking is in itself a daunting endeavour, but the true struggle lies in bearing the weight of those cumbersome buckets, laboriously lugging them homeward,” Saleema said.

Despite the trials and tribulations, they endure, the women of Humpora village, including Saleema, are left with no alternative but to rely upon this compromised water source to sustain their daily lives.

“Fetching water from the canal has become the consuming essence of my existence. It shackles my whole being. Regrettably, this village stands alone, abandoned by the government’s commitment to bestow its people with the fundamental right of tap water connections,” she said.

The scarcity of clean water is not solely a predicament faced by these villages, but rather an issue afflicting numerous villages throughout Kashmir valley, where women are burdened with the task of fetching drinking water from nearby sources.

Anderwan, Sursuna, Arwani, Hampora, and 78 other villages in Kashmir valley where access to clean water remains an elusive dream – these names may not ring a bell for many, but they represent the other forgotten villages of Kashmir like Walkhul, Dorusa, Sogam,  ajwar area of Handwara including Thokri Mohalla, Wader Payeen, Gujar Patti Wader, Sarmarg Check, Sarmarg Main, Mani Dora, Nagni Wader, Hamlapati, Shat Mohalla, Rajpora, Khahipora, etc., where life’s most basic necessity is a daily battle.

Women in Sursuna Anantnag fetching water from water Tanker. Photo: Junaid Manzoor Dar

CPI(M) senior Leader Mohd Yusuf Tarigami told The Wire that the stories of Anderwan, Sursuna, Arwani, Humpora, and other 78 villages across Kashmir echo a desperate plea for change.

Tarigami expressed his disappointment with the empty catchphrases of the Jal Jeevan Mission, the goal of supplying clean drinking water to all villages should have been achieved earlier, but it is regrettable that 329 villages of Jammu and Kashmir still lack access to Functional Household Tap Connections (FHTC).

“Clean water is not a luxury; it is a human right. It is time to break the chains that bind these villages, to empower their communities with the resources they need to thrive. The women of Kashmir, strong and resilient, should not have to bear the burden of fetching water alone. It is time to rewrite their story, to transform their struggle into a tale of triumph, where every village in Kashmir can proudly declare that clean water flows freely within their grasp,” Tarigami said.

 According to the official figures released by the Jal Jeevan Mission, an initiative undertaken by the Government of India, only 1,287 villages out of 6,778 villages in Jammu and Kashmir have achieved 100% Functional Household Tap Connections (FHTCs). The data also reveals that 329 villages in Jammu and Kashmir still lack access to any functional household tap connections, exacerbating the water crisis for their residents.

As per the official figures released by Jal Jeevan Mission, Government of India, the J&K Union territory is providing clean tap water to over 11.85 lakh rural households out of a total of 18.67 lakh under JJM.

The Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), a flagship programme of the Government of India was launched on August 15 of 2019 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The flagship programme has been launched with an objective to provide 100% Functional Household Tap Connections (FHTC) at the rate of 55 LPCD as per BIS 10500 standard by 2024 with central assistance of 90:10 for J&K. As per the official figures, the J&K government has a target to provide FHTC to around 18.67 lakh rural households in Jammu and Kashmir out of 5.75 (30.81%) lakh rural households found with functional tap water connections as on August 15 of 2019.

As per the survey conducted by the government, around 5.47 lakh rural households have been covered with FHTC under JJM by the Jammu and Kashmir government. With this, the number of rural households with functional tap water connections has increased from 5.75 lakh in 2019 to 11.85 lakh (63.45%).

However, chief engineer of Jal Shakti Department Kashmir, Sanjeev Malhotra, said that all villages in Kashmir to be covered under the JJM programme by 2024.

“We have set a target to provide Functional household tap connections (FHTCs) to all villages in Kashmir that currently lack access to clean drinking water,” Malhotra said.

Junaid Manzoor Dar, who holds a Master’s in Mass Communication and Journalism from the University of Kashmir, is a Kashmir-based independent journalist. He can be reached at junaidmanzoor520@gmail.com.

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