In the village of Mangi in central India, Laxman Tekam committed suicide after two years of failed cotton crops and mounting debt.
An estimated 200,000 farmers in India have taken their own lives since 1997, according to government statistics.
Photojournalist Michael McElroy met Tekam’s father while he was covering the issue in 2010. He says it became clear that there was a link between the high suicide rate and the country’s water crisis.
“Farmers who depend solely on monsoon rains for their crops are seeing the annual rains become unpredictable,” McElroy said. “Year after year, crops are failing from lack of water and farmers are becoming more and more indebted.”
India’s water supply has been stretched thin by a soaring population, a large agricultural sector and poor water management practices. McElroy has been documenting the dire situation since his first trip to the country two years ago.
During his visits, he met women who walk for miles a day in search of water. Through a translator, he heard how many of the wells are drying up or contaminated.
He also saw people in the overcrowded slums gather at illegally tapped water lines each morning, filling up as many containers as they could before the supply was shut off.
“I think when you are subjected to a hardship for so long that it sadly ends up being another part of your daily routine,” McElroy said. “For many, this is how it has been for their entire life.”
The problem isn’t unique to India. More than 780 million people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion don’t have adequate water for sanitation, according to a recent report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
McElroy plans to return to India in September and focus on water-related diseases, which remain a major concern in many parts of the developing world.
“Covering the water crisis in India has definitely changed my outlook,” he said. “It has changed the way I think about all of our natural resources, not just water, and it has also changed the way I use water and what foods I eat.”
Food security is at the center of this year’s World Water Day, held annually on March 22. According to the event’s website, producing 1 kilogram of beef requires 15,000 liters of water, while 1 kilogram of wheat only needs 1,500 liters.
Since becoming aware of the issue, McElroy has cut back on the amount of meat he eats. To further conserve water, he says he takes shorter showers and doesn't just let the sink run.
He hopes his photographs help convince more people to change their habits and recognize the severity of the situation worldwide.
“I'm ashamed to admit that before I visited India I never really paid much attention to water,” McElroy said. “I simply turned on my faucet and it was there. I thought, like many, that water was abundant and it would never run out.”
- Brett Roegiers, CNN