A record-breaking heatwave has swept across India since early April, bringing the worst drought in decades along with it. While this is usually the hottest part of the year for the subcontinent, this year’s temperatures have been higher than normal, ranging from the low 40s (about 104 degrees Fahrenheit) to a staggering 47 degrees Celsius (116 F). So far, the heat has claimed more than 300 lives in the past month, and there’s little hope it will let up before the beginning of the monsoon season in June.
Though this year’s La Niña weather pattern promises above-average rainfalls for the region, it’s unlikely to be enough to end the drought. Due to low rainfall during the past two monsoon seasons, groundwater levels in India have been severely depleted: 79% of the country’s reservoirs now stand empty, and 75% of its basins are holding less water than the 10-year average.
Up to 330 million people may be affected by the current drought, according to government estimates. This is bad news for farmers in rural areas, who have been unable to irrigate their crops, threatening their livelihoods. In some areas, the shortage is so severe it’s affected access to drinking water, requiring the government to ship in tankers as an emergency measure. While this year’s death toll is nowhere near 2015’s loss of 2,500 people across the nation, the situation could quickly become dire.
For many, the situation has highlighted India’s struggling social safety net, which leaves many poor farmers in drought-stricken regions only three choices: stay inside out of the heat and let their crops die, go into the fields and risk heat stroke, or abandon their land and migrate to cities in the hope of finding work. Local governments have been doing their best to prevent any further deaths by running ads telling residents to stay indoors, seek shade, and drink plenty of water, but without other meaningful support, it’s unclear what the future holds for India’s people.