BALAWAS, INDIA - Chatan Singh, a farmer in the village of Balawas in Haryana, India, has planted two crops in his fields since June, but both have failed because of the scanty monsoon. A few years ago this would have been unthinkable because tube wells and a nearby canal could have made up for any shortfall in rain. But the canal recently ran dry and the wells are suddenly spewing out unusable saline water. When this year's rains went truant, Chatan's crops withered, leaving the father of eight deep in debt.
''This is new,'' he says. ''Once there was good water from the rains, the canal and the tube wells, but now it's scarce.''
Chatan and his neighbours are being forced to drink the saline water that comes from the ground. Tests by a local university have shown it is not fit for regular consumption, but the villagers keep drinking. There is no alternative. It is a pattern being repeated around the subcontinent, says environmentalist Vandana Shiva, who has studied the effects of modern agriculture in India for more than 20 years and now believes her country is destined for water wars. ''In a decade, India could look like Darfur in Sudan,'' she says. ''When you run out of water, it's a recipe for killing. Water really makes people so desperate.''
A patchy monsoon on the subcontinent this year has hit crops, particularly rice, highlighting the region's vulnerability to water shortages. But the problem is much bigger than one poor wet season.
In Haryana and Punjab, two states crucial to India's food security, farmers are drawing too much groundwater. Dubbed the subcontinent's breadbasket, this region has been the heartland of India's green revolution since the mid-1960s. The high-yielding crop varieties grown here have enabled the country to feed its huge, fast-growing population. But the hybrid crops of the green revolution require a lot of water as well as fertiliser and pesticides.
Farmers in Punjab and Haryana are now drilling deeper and deeper for water and the crop yields that once rose year after year have stagnated.
A new analysis of NASA satellite data for the north-west of India from 2002 to 2008 has found aquifers are disappearing at an alarming rate. The study warns of the potential "collapse of agriculture" and severe shortages of drinking water in the region unless things change.
Associate Professor Raj Kumar Jhorar, a soil and water specialist at Haryana Agricultural University, says too many farmers have switched to water-intensive crops such as rice, wheat and cotton. His research shows that the area of rice under cultivation in Haryana has risen by about 430 per cent since the late 1960s, cotton by 230 per cent and wheat by more than 200 per cent.
"This just isn't sustainable," he says.
A Punjab Government draft water policy published last year said the state's water resources were being polluted by industrial waste, sewage and excessive pesticide use in agriculture. "This can adversely affect the health of the populace and may cause diseases like cancer, skin diseases and miscarriage cases."
These reports only confirm what local farmers already know.
According to Vandana Shiva, water shortages could split Indian communities along deeply entrenched divisions of caste and religion. ''What we will start seeing is localised conflicts over water,'' she says. ''As livelihoods evaporate, along with water, you will see all sorts of cracks opening up in society.''
Conflict is also possible between India's majority rural population and its bursting cities. "People with power live in cities and, as the water crisis is deepening, what remains is being increasingly delivered to the cities," says Shiva.
She is tracking eight major river diversions under way in India to provide cities with more water.
Farmers in Balawas don't quibble with Shiva's predictions of violent conflict over water. ''Our wives already squabble over drinking water, so when it gets to agricultural water there will be a much bigger fight,'' says farmer Jai Singh Sharma.
Sharma's family owns 16 hectares in Balawas, but he now plants crops on less than half a hectare because of a lack of water. ''Our water is running out. Our tube wells are no longer giving us what we need,'' he says. ''If our water supply keeps receding at this rate we will see violence.''
Sharma fears the stress over water will also trigger a wave of suicides among the district's deeply indebted farmers. ''If this trend keeps going, some will leave ... but many will just kill themselves,'' he says.
At Dauatpur village, about 50 kilometres from Balawas, the farmers are just as pessimistic. Kulbhushan Sharma, whose family owns six hectares, says he has been forced to drill his wells deeper, especially in the past five years.
''Slowly, slowly, year by year things are going from bad to worse,'' he says. ''If this goes on it will be the end. Forget water for farming, we won't even have any to drink. The whole of India will be affected.''
There have been bitter fights recently over the dwindling supply of canal water in Dauatpur. "The violence has started," says Sharma.
Last month a gang of farmers at Aurangabad, in the poverty-stricken state of Bihar, gained nationwide publicity when they took up arms to guard their watered fields.
The gun-toting villagers claimed water thieves from nearby were trying to divert water towards their fields. They were ready to kill or be killed to protect their water.
"We don't want a fight, but if someone diverts the canal water then how will we irrigate our fields?'' one of the armed men, Narendra Singh, said on local television.
Indian governments have been urged to manage water more effectively and to improve the patchy maintenance of India's vast canal systems. Non-government organisations such as Gram Swarajya Sansthan in Haryana are funded by official schemes to educate farmers about groundwater depletion and to promote rainwater harvesting and other strategies to help replenish the water table. The Punjab Government recently banned farmers from planting paddy rice until after the monsoon arrives, in a bid to save water. There are also ambitious dam building and river diversion schemes.
However, political imperatives have stifled sensible reforms. Water is not priced appropriately and most farmers enjoy free electricity to run their groundwater pumps. This encourages waste.
As if India's water problems were not enough already, global warming threatens to make them much worse.
"We know that climate change will intensify the water crisis," says Shiva.
Scientists say the annual monsoon, on which about 40 per cent of India's farmers depend, is likely to become more unpredictable. At the same time, the Himalayan glaciers that feed great rivers of the subcontinent upon which hundreds of millions of people rely are receding at a worrying rate.
The World Bank says climate change alone could reduce the subcontinent's crop yields by 30 per cent by the mid-21st century. Meanwhile, India adds more than 20 million new mouths to feed every year.