JODHPUR, India — Hindu priest Bhupendra Vaishnava steps gingerly into the Kunj Bhihari
temple's Vishnu grotto. Two inches of water instantly submerge his bare feet. In between two marble slabs in the basement shrine's center, a thin spurt of water jets an inch into the air.
The temple is flooding.
Here in the desert city of Jodhpur, a popular tourist destination nestled in the hinterlands of the great Thar desert, Vaishnava shares his plight with home and business owners fighting groundwater rising by up to 4.5 feet a year.
As large parts of India suffer the worst drought in 20 years due to the delayed monsoon, this indigo blue city is slowly flooding because of the Indira Gandhi canal. The behemoth irrigation scheme, which began in 1958, diverts water from the northern "breadbasket" state of Punjab down to Haryana and Rajasthan. It reached Jodhpur in 1997.
Before then, the city was almost as tinder dry as the surrounding farmlands. According to legend, the dryness stretches back to 1459. When the maharajah ordered the foundation stones of the Mehrangarh Fort to be laid, a hermit was forced from his shelter. To retaliate, he issued the curse: "May your kingdom suffer drought for ever!”
The canal has turned that legend on its head.
Geologically, Jodhpur lies in a bowl-shaped indentation to which the excess water drains. The state government has set aside 120 million rupees ($2.6 million) to help the city, with tentative plans to plant eucalyptus and other non-native, water-demanding trees to literally drink away the problem.
As Jodhpur floods, Rajasthan as a state faces depleted ground water in the face of this year's drought. Recent NASA satellite imagery suggests a foot a year is being lost. Some 450 million Indian farmers depend on the monsoon which accounts for 80 percent of the country's water. This year, only two thirds of the average fell, and far too late to save much of the crops.
About an hour outside Jodhpur, villagers testified they expected only 5 to 10 percent of their usual millet, mung and mothbean production. Staple food will have to be bought.
But these farmers' water needs could be Jodhpur's savior.
Nearby villages are due to be connected to the canal. Along shrub-lined countryside roads lie large white pipes, like giant maggots in the sand, waiting to be linked up and buried. Once installed, they could ease the pressure of the city's rising levels, siphoning off too much of a good thing.