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Drought in India: Disrupted rhythms of nomadic family life

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Michael Benanav

(Read caption) Rabari cattle herder Lavuben Rozia and her young son, forced to migrate with their family's herds due to severe drought in Gujarat, India.

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I've been catching the reports that the drought in the western United States is the worst to hit the region since the Dust Bowl years; how farmers are struggling; how livestock is suffering. The situation is similar where I've been traveling: in the Indian state of Gujarat, where some places are drier than they've been in decades.

The monsoon season, which usually soaks Gujarat with rain from mid-June through August, is a key element of the rhythm of life here: it waters farms, grasslands, and forests, fills cisterns and lakes, and cultural traditions and social rituals are timed to sync with it. But this year, it's simply failed to materialize in some regions, causing inconvenience for some, panic for others - especially those who rely on agriculture. 

Among those hardest hit are families from the Maldhari tribes, some 5 million people including the Rabaris and Bharwads, who herd cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. Though many Maldharis migrate for half the year or more, moving from place to place in search of fodder for their animals, most return to their home villages for a few months (from about July to November) during and after the annual monsoon, as the grasses grow lush from the rain.

Traveling in August through the Saurashtra region, which has received less than 20 percent of its average annual rainfall, I could easily see the impact of the drought.  Along the asphalt roads that traverse a flat patchwork of fields and open spaces, dotted occasionally with trees, thousands of cows and water buffaloes were marching, steered by men in turbans who wore thick silver bracelets, gold earrings, and carried large bamboo sticks. And they were heading away from their villages. There was simply no fodder for their animals near their homes.

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