BARAMULLA, KASHMIR, INDIA - Shamshada Bano, a young woman from Sopore, a town in Kashmir's Baramulla district, says the day starts early for women here as they set out to fetch water for their families. Because of the scarcity of water in her village, Tujjar, she says it's never an easy task.
"We set out to collect water at 6 in the morning," she says. "Sometimes we move out while still rubbing our eyes and without even washing our face."
Women wait in long queues for hours for their turn at the village's few public posts, or common water taps.
"It takes us almost two hours to fetch water from a nearby public post," she says.
The community water taps in the village sit hardly a few centimeters above the ground, so the women first collect water in a small container and then pour it into a bigger vessel.
"This is too tiresome, and one family can collect one pot of water at a time," Bano says. "Besides, the water pipes have been laid 50 years back, and the water pressure in these pipes is too low."
Water here is available for just an hour a day early in the morning, so it's first come, first serve. Those who arrive early succeed in collecting water, while others have to return home empty-handed.
"After waiting for hours and if luck favors [us], we are able to collect one pot of water," she says. "Otherwise have to return empty."
After fetching water, she returns home, eats her breakfast and leaves for college.
Women in one Kashmiri village say water scarcity- thanks to a poor water system, pollution of local streams and irregular rainfall - hurts their education, health and relationships. Villagers say local wells and irrigation systems are also nonfunctional. Residents from nearby villages say they face the same water problems. Government officials admit there are problems, but they say the current situation isn't the norm and that they have directed engineers to address the water shortage immediately.
According to UNICEF's latest statistics from 2008, 88 percent of people in India have an improved drinking-water source. But residents in Kashmiri villages say they have had water problems for decades now. Moreover, they say the situation has gone from bad to worse because the streams they used to rely on are now polluted.
Bano's friend, Shareefa Bano, a common last name here, says that if they don't get water before school, they have to search for it afterward. Many times, this requires traveling to other villages.
"In case we fail to get water in [the] morning, we've to look after it during evening," she says. "At times, those who fail to collect water from nearby taps during wee hours move outside a village in search of water. Usually, every family here has a handcart required to fetch water from a distance."
She says that fetching water usually consumes a lot of time and often interferes with their education.
"We often reach school late and miss couple of classes," she says. "Similarly, after returning from schools, we again move out in search of water."
She says that female students sometimes have to retake exams because they don't have time to adequately prepare.
She says the local "paand" - or stream - used to produce clean water, but now it is polluted. She says they sometimes settle for the contaminated stream water for cattle rearing, cleaning and other chores.
"Sometimes we collect contaminated water from nearby Budshah Paand that was once clean and safe and was used for drinking purpose," she says. "The water body that has now turned polluted often stinks during summers."
But she says that even this water source is dwindling.
"Less rainfall has affected the water flow in a stream," she says.
Shareefa Bano says that the lack of water especially affects women, who are in charge of fetching it.
"If we had proper water system, we wouldn't face such difficulties, and we would have concentrated on other development work," she says. "Education of women suffers the most."
She says their education isn't the only thing that suffers.
"At times, we face health problems on account of traveling long distances to fetch water," she says.
The friends say that they bathe only once every seven to 10 days, depending on water availability, because they have to take turns with other family members.
"Washing clothes is other issue," Shamshada Bano says. "If we wash them with the water of Budshah Paand, it smells strange, and then we use perfumes to counter that smell. Now, we pile up clothes over a period of time and then try to find out water to wash them once or twice a month."
Other women in the friends' village say they face the same problems.
"There is no concept of cleanliness here," says Sarah Begum, a middle-aged woman. "Without water, we can't think of a clean environment and surrounding."
She says that as dawn sets in, they set out in search of water. They often have to travel to areas a few kilometers from their native village in order to collect water.
"This is our routine affair," Begum says. "In case we fail to get water, we are compelled to consume the contaminated water from the paand."
She says water scarcity, in addition to jeopardizing basic needs, also affects marriages and relationships among family and friends.
"People aren't willing to get their daughters married in our area due to scarcity of water," she says. "Those who get married here often end up in tiffs with husband or parents."
Begum admits to having occasional tiffs with her husband and parents instigated by the problems that water scarcity in the village causes her.
Irfan Ahmad, a young man, fetches water in the village after returning from school. But he says it's up to his sister to make the trek to farther taps.
"I, too, fetch water in a bucket but within village," he says. "My sister moves out of village to collect water."
Khazir Ahmad, another villager, says collecting water can also cause tension among women.
"Sometimes fetching water result in quarrels among women, and relations get strained," Ahmad says.
He says this is because of the importance of water.
"Where there is water, there is life," he says.
In addition to taps and polluted streams, locals say that there are also tube wells, a type of well in which a tube or pipe is bored into the ground, in the village that the government created. But they say that some are dysfunctional, some carry contaminated water and others have been monopolized by a few influential families in the village.
Locals say they aren't allowed to wash their clothes at the wells and are asked to collect minimal water from them. They also say that government management of tube wells is inefficient, as 18 employees from the Ministry of Public Health and Engineering are responsible for managing two tube wells, and they still aren't functional.
Locals also say that paddy fields in the village have almost dried up because of a decline in rainfall.
"Usually, the crop here is rain-fed, but over last few years as rainfall has reduced, crop and vegetable production has declined," says Rehti Maaas, a senior citizen.
Mohammad Ayoub, Pir Ghulam Rasool, Nazir Ahmad and Khazir Mohammad, other villagers, say that proper distribution of water by the Irrigation and Flood Control Department would prevent the drying up of paddy fields.
"If irrigation water pump at Watlab is rendered functional, issues related to irrigation would get resolved," Nazir Ahmad says.
They say that their area lies at the end of two streams, the Zangeer and the Lal Khoul. Consequently, they face water shortages and issues related to irrigation every year, especially during July and August.
"Kulwaan [desilting] is to be done in November or March, but authorities here do it in June, and by that time we are in urgent need of water, which affects crops directly," Ayoub says. "We've to arrange water in tillers or tankers for orchards. Poor are unable to afford it, and, consequently, they suffer the most."
Desilting is the process of removing silt, or sediments, from the water. The residents say they still have to pay for the untimely services.
"Despite all these difficulties, we are asked to pay tax at the time of harvest," Mohammad says.
A water tanker truck sometimes drops by the area.
"Usually, it is for security forces," says Bashir Ahmad, a local. "Then we request them for some water. At times, tanker provides a bucket of water in lieu of money."
People in other villages in Baramulla district say they are also facing a water crisis.
Locals a few miles away in Pattan say that there is no proper drinking water facility in villages here, including Nadyari, Mallipora, Buren, Ganaiepora, Batpora and Ganjipora.
Zareefa Begum, a local resident, says villagers can't rely on streams or tube wells.
"Water in streams have dried up, and tube wells have been sanctioned in favor of influential [families]," she says.
She says women bear the brunt of the water burden in this area, too.
"Amidst all this, we, the women folk, suffer immensely," she says. "Early morning, we leave our homes to fetch water, and other work follows depending upon how much time is consumed in collecting water. We've to work in fields as well, but that depends how quick we are able to fetch water."
She says that someone in her neighborhood owns a private tube well. She says she may use it occasionally, but she can't go there every time she needs water.
"Though we take a liberty to wash clothes and collect water for cattle, but it looks odd to go there every time," she says. "We demand a tube well from the government, as we are not in a position to purchase one."
She says that there has been no water during the summer months.
"Streams and springs dry up," she says. "In winter, there is plenty of water, but it is difficult to get it. Being icy and adverse weather, we've to break the frozen ice to get water."
She says the shortage of water is a root cause of several socio-economic problems faced by villagers, especially women.
Government officials here say they are aware of the current water shortage.
"A tanker has been sanctioned for us, but it is not regular," says Ghulam Nabi Bhat, the village head of Buren village in the town of Pattan. "It comes at its own convenience."
He says tube wells are also sparse.
"Besides, there are few tube wells here, which are almost out of order," he says. "They've not been maintained well. Even local community doesn't take care of them. Public property is usually considered no one's liability."
Haji Mohammad Ashraf Ganai, member of the Sopore Legislative Assembly, says that work is in progress to address the water crisis in Tujjar and that it will be solved to a large extent by next year.
"We will frame a new scheme and a new plan to look into grievances of these people," he says.
He says it's a seasonal issue, as the water level in the Lal Khoul, a nearby river in Kupwara district, gets low during this time of year. Tujjar is located on the border of Baramulla and Kupwara.
He says that water pump stations provide another alternative, but they run on electricity, which is not always available.
"Besides, water pump station works [un]til electricity is available," he says. "This, too, affects local residents."
Ganai says that dry paddy fields also aren't the norm.
"It has happened this year only, as there has been less rainfall," he says. "But the crop will not be adversely affected."
Nevertheless, he says he hopes the water scarcity problem will be looked into soon.
Meanwhile, Taj Mohi-ud-Din, state minister for public health and engineering and minister for irrigation and flood control, said last month while chairing a review meeting of hydraulic projects in Kupwara that providing drinking water to areas without it was the government's top priority, according to a press release. He asked engineering departments to supply water to these localities on a priority basis.
"Drinking water and irrigation are priority elements as per water policy framed by government," he said.
But women like Shamshada Bano and Shareefa Bano say they don't feel like a priority and will continue to wake up at dawn until the government meets their water needs.