Let's deal with drought

Tags: Knowledge

Despite our abundant knowledge about drought mitigation, we have not got used to treating water with the greatest care

Drought is such a forbidding condition for any state to fall into that it becomes at once threatening and emotive. Its every symptom becomes a new trial for a drought-afflicted population and simultaneously a likely indictment of the administration, whether local or regional. Food and crop, water and health, wages and relief: this is the short list for which action is demanded by a concerned population for those in the drought-affected districts and blocks.

The administration is bound to answer, as it is likewise bound to plan, prepare, anticipate and act. But where the interrogation of a government for its tardiness in providing immediate relief comes quickly, a consideration of the many factors that contribute to the set of conditions we call drought is rarely done, particularly in times of abundant water. It is the gap between these two activities that has characterised most public criticism of the role of administration.

For farmers and district or block-level administrators alike, drought is a normal and recurrent feature of climate in the dryland regions of India. It occurs in nearly all climatic zones — recorded history of droughts and floods in particular show that whereas in eastern India (West Bengal, Odisha and Bihar) a drought occurs once in every five years, in Gujarat, eastern Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh the frequency is once in three years. Although the characteristics of what we call drought varies significantly from one meteorological sub-division to another, and indeed from one agro-ecological zone to another, the drought condition arises from a deficiency in precipitation that persists long enough to produce a serious hydrological imbalance.

Drought is a complex phenomenon. There is first a need to distinguish between meteorological and agricultural droughts. A meteorological drought is a period of prolonged dry weather conditions due to below normal rainfall. An agricultural drought refers to the impact caused by precipitation shortages, temperature anomalies that lead to excessive evaporation of water from crops and vegetation, and consequently, leads to a shortage of the water content in soil, all being factors that adversely affect crop production and soil moisture. The National Commission on Agriculture has defined an agricultural drought differently for the kharif (monsoon cropping season, July to October) and rabi (winter cropping season, October to March).

What the country has witnessed during March and April is an agricultural drought, brought about by the high mean and maximum temperatures resulting in a heat-wave. We have witnessed this in Odisha, Telengana, Vidarbha, Mara­thwada, north interior Karn­ataka, Rayalaseema, coastal Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, eastern Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The loss to communities has been appalling: deaths attributed to the heat wave are reported to be over 135 in Telengana and Odisha; the numerous cattle in the Madhya Bharat, Malwa and Bundelkhand plat­eaus, and in the Vindhyan scarpland have died; there has been irrecoverable drying of standing crop in all these affected regions. It has become a recurring irony that as one part of the country experiences floods, as Assam has just done, other regions, such as Marathawada and Bund­elkh and are scorched dry.

The widespread and severe impact of the drought has drained household incomes and community development by at least two to four years. Then why were those responsible for mitigating disasters not prepared? What relief is being mobilised?

no administration is short of experience. In 1945 All India Radio first broadcast a farmer's weather bulletin. As early as 1967 the Drought Research Unit was established by the IMD. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has been running 130 agro-meteorological field units, to provide advisories at district level, since 2008.

Since 2010, collaborations between the Earth Systems Science Organisation of the ministry of earth sciences, the India Meteorological Depa­rtment (IMD), the National Remote Sensing Centre of the Indian Space Research Orga­nisation, the Central Ground Water Board, the ICAR and the department of agriculture and cooperation of the ministry of agriculture have maintained and augmented a number of high quality and reliable advisory services that cover the gamut of terrestrial and climatological conditions at district and even watershed level. These are all in the public domain for use by administrators, the public and experts.

Nonetheless ‘drought’ has several meanings and connotations. The standard weekly and seasonal maps by the IMD that show rainfall in the meteorological sub-divisions tend to obscure more than they illuminate. The recent letter written by some 100 eminent people and academics to the prime minister demanding that the centre “do something” about drought, shows why the differing perceptions about how drought comes about leads to confusion.

Yet there was the matter of the global climatological cycles to contend with, highly complex systems that tax even the linked might of supercomputers. The most powerful of these is the El Niño, which began forming in 2014, was expected early in 2015 but which peaked between November 2015 and January 2016. This coincides with the below-normal monsoon we experienced in both 2014 and 2015. Although associated with the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, the El Niño phenomenon aided the heating up of a gigantic section of the Indian Ocean, which by February 2016 became the largest region of ocean surface which heated up. This gradual accumulation of heat in turn warmed the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal and, therefore, the entire peninsula of India. Such are the earth systems science capabilities and the climatological factors that have been active since 2014.

Indeed, the signals of a harsh summer were available by the last quarter of 2015. State administrations do not appear to possess the capacity to make these interpretations, nor do metropolitan city corporations and much less municipal councils. That’s why it is as much about understanding the biophysical signals and evidence as it is about managing less water. what has tended to escape scrutiny during times of drought are the factors — and these are powerful factors — associated with water use, land use and the behaviour of populations.

Rainfed agriculture is the basis of cultivation in a majority of agro-ecological regions and river sub-basins of India. Yet these had lacked focused planning. Finally, when governments woke up to the problem, it was caught up in efforts to prioritise aspects such as percentage of land irrigated, aridity index, incidence of poverty, soil resources, land degradation and so on. These found early expression in planned schemes such as the backward regions grant fund and the command area deve­lopment programme.

This, when, for over 30 years, multidisciplinary agricultural and environmental experts have been advocating regionally differentiated interventions to tackle drought. This is the approach now taken by the national rainfed area authority, the Central Research Institute for Dry land Agriculture and the ministry of water res­ources. What emerges is the considering drought as agricultural or meteorological phenomenon physically exaggerated by the misuse or misallocation of natural resources — it is this aspect that caused the recent uproar about cricket matches being staged in dry Maharashtra.

There is rainwater (whi­ch is collected and distributed) and groundwater (which is pumped), but farmers do not have the first claim to such water. It is increasingly our cities and towns: there are 45 cities with populations of one to five million, 415 cities with populations of 100,000 to one million and 5,698 towns with populations of under 100,000 and this last group accounts for 29 per cent of India's urban population. The central ground water board has found that groundwater makes up more than half the urban water supply in all towns and cities, metros included, and the use of groundwater by Class II and III urban settlements is typically unknown.

Likewise, a second claimant of both ground and surface water is Indian industry, whose overall water footprint - by any international reckoning such as litres per unit of value added - is too high, and which deposits waste water untreated so rendering it unfit for use in agriculture. A 2011 study by the Prayas Energy Group showed that our coal-based thermal power plants (which use great quantities of water for cooling and ash disposal) consume eight times more water than the most water-efficient of such plants in use.

Thus rural India — our food producers and animal husbanders — which dep­ends on groundwater for up to 90 per cent of its drinking water supply, and up to 70 per cent for its irrigated water supply, is only the third claimant. Cities and towns will demand their share of water throughout the year, regardless of whether nearby talukas are experiencing meteorological or agriculture drought, ind­ustry will demand water to maintain their contributions to GDP and provide employment, thermal po­wer plants annex water so that the myriad pumps are provided electricity for groundwater to be lifted out of ever deeper tubewells. This is part of the vicious circle of behaviour and resource misuse which makes drought a complex phenomenon.

The roll call of districts declared affected by dro­ught is grim. In Kar­nataka, 27 out of 30 are drought affected, Chha­ttisgarh 25 out of 27, Madhya Pradesh 46 out of 51, Maharashtra 28 out of 36, Odisha 27 out of 30, Andhra Pradesh 10 out of 13, Uttar Pradesh 50 out of 75, Telengana 7 out of 10, Jharkhand 22 out of 24, Rajasthan 19 out of 33, Gujarat 5 out of 33. Drought conditions as widespread as these are daunting to the younger civil servants at state and district levels because of the scale of the humanitarian needs. Nonetheless, we do see planned efforts by administrative and agricultural services with considerable institutional experience.

The Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA, which is an ICAR institution), in collaboration with state agricultural universities and the departments of agriculture in the states update and revise contingency plans for 600 districts every year so that in times of drought and drought-like conditions, measures specific to a district’s needs are taken to sustain a baseline of agriculture production.

According to the division of roles and responsibilities, the state governments are mainly responsible for implementing relief measures during, and following, natural calamities (drought included). For this, there is a state disaster response fund. However, additional financial assistance is available from the national disaster response fund. Moreover, for the drought affected areas during 2015-16 (i.e., 266 districts) central measures have been extended. These include the pradhan mantri krishi sinchayee yojana which includes the repair, restoration and renovation of defunct water sources, the construction of water harvesting structures, and enhancing the potential of traditional water bodies at the village level. Further, under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gua­rantee Act (MGNREGA) additional employment of 50 days, in addition to the assured 100 days per household, has been sanctioned for the drought-affected districts. Together with the diesel subsidy scheme, the raising of the ceiling on seed subsidy, and the additional fodder development programme, these measures are intended to help protect our kisan households at least until a better-than-normal monsoon in 2016 helps to stabilise family incomes and livelihoods.

(The writer is advisor, Centre for Environment Education, ministry of environment and forest and an expert on intangible heritage, Unesco)

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