Water scarcity, parched lands stare at peninsular India

South India reels from the worst drought in over a century. Our reporters travel to Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala to understand why the states suffer despite two monsoons a year


                    A puddle created by the spillover from a borewell is the only source of free water for the residents of Nagakuri village in the Cauvery delta of Tamil Nadu (Photo  Bhaskarjyoti Goswami)
A puddle created by the spillover from a borewell is the only source of free water for the residents of Nagakuri village in the Cauvery delta of Tamil Nadu (Photo Bhaskarjyoti Goswami)

An unprecedented emergency-like situation is unfolding in southern India. Large parts of the peninsula that receive two monsoons a year face a severe water scarcity for the second consecutive cropping season. In fact, for the first time in 140 years, all the five states have received large deficit rains (40-77 per cent) during the winter monsoon, which contributes 30-80 per cent of the total rainfall the region receives in a year. Except Telangana, governments of the remaining states—Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh—have declared 68 of their 89 districts drought-hit.

These districts are home to 165 million people and are known for river basins and deltas that contribute 20 per cent of the rice produced in the country. Media reports say 1,600 farmers have committed suicide during January-October 2016 in Telangana and Karnataka, reeling from drought since 2014. In Tamil Nadu, drought has forced 270 farmers to take their lives since October 2016. Nearly 60 farmers committed suicide between August 2015 and April 2016 in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district alone, says non-profit Rythu Swarajya Vedika. The latest report of the National Crime Records Bureau shows that 29,593 farmers and agricultural labourers from South India have committed suicide between 2010 and 2015.

Kerala, the first state to be hit by mon soon winds and to receive a humongous 3,000 mm of rain on a normal year, faces the worst drought in a century. In the past six months, the state has been declared drought -hit twice—first in October last year after the southwest monsoon, which arrives by June and lasts till September, fell short by 34 per cent, and then in early April this year, after the northeast monsoon, which starts from mid-October and ends around December, recorded 62 per cent deficit rainfall.

Its neighbour Tamil Nadu, which on an average receives 1,000 mm of rains a year, suffers the most severe drought in 150 years. Karnataka faces its worst drought in over 50 years. The story is not much different for Andhra Pradesh. The state’s Rayalaseema region, a crucible of drought for a long time, stares at its worst water scarcity. Major parts perennially water-scarce Telangana heaved a sigh of relief after it received rains last summer. But districts such as Adilabad and Karimnagar continue to remain parched.

A rapid assessment by the International Water Management Institute shows that the drought has affected nearly 5.5 million hectares (ha) in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, claims the state minister for agriculture, 30,000 ha are lying unsown. The 31 reservoirs monitored by the Central Water Commission in the region hold 11 per cent of their storage capacity. In Tamil Nadu, water level in four reservoirs has dipped below the minimum drawdown level (MDDL), below which aquatic life cannot survive. Srisailam reservoir in Andhra Pradesh was close to reaching MDDL in mid-April. The Krishna and Cauvery rivers, the lifelines of the region, are flowing 70 per cent below the normal level (see ‘Wish it rains’,). Small wonder, people as well as governments are now resorting to desperate measures.

Sources: India Meteorological Department monsoon reports, Central Water Commission reservoir status of May 4, 2017

Tamil Nadu chases shadows

For the past five months, farmers in the state have been frantically uprooting a water-guzzling inva sive shrub, Prosopsis juliflora. “Uprooting the weed is not easy. The thorns are just the beginning. The roots go very deep and the wood is hard and strong. Sometimes even burning the tree does not help get rid of it,” says D Kadhiralagan, farmer from Thanjavur district, part of the Cauvery delta, which faces crop failure for the third consecutive season. In December 2016, the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court directed uprooting of the weed from across the state, while hearing a public-interest petition that claimed that the city’s grou ndwater table is fast receding due to the pervasi veness of the weed. The government had since issued directives for the removal of all Prosopsis plants on private properties and has hired workers to do the same on government land until in the last week of April the Madras High Court stayed the order, questioning its scientific validity.

On April 21, Tamil Nadu minister for coope ratives Sellur K Raju inaugurated a bizarre experiment of floating thermocol sheets worth Rs 10 lakh on the Vai gai reservoir to prevent evapo ration losses. As expected, the experiment was foiled by wind and water flows. Failure of the scheme notwithstanding, the intent is evident and the desperation is palpable, particularly in the Cauvery delta, the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu.

For over a month now, farmers from the delta have been staging protests 2,500 km away at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Usually bright green with paddy saplings at this time of the year, villages in Thanjavur are all dry and barren because of mons oon failures and Karnataka’s refusal to release Cauvery waters citing its own deficits. “The crop we harvested in March had a yield of just 50 per cent because it is too hot and dry for germination,” says S Vanaja, farmer from Nagakudi village. Her neighbour, Murugesan, says she now grows crops on one-eighth of her 8 ha land because of water scarcity. All the 40 farm ponds in her village have gone dry. To source water, Nagakudi residents are now drilling borewells as deep as 60 metres. But they yield salty water, unfit for consumption.

The situation gets worse as one moves towa rds the coast, where drought seems to have beco me a chronic problem. “We have been struggling with farm productivity for five years,” says N Rajendran from Korukkai village. But this year they have failed to get a decent harvest even from hardy crops like black gram. “I harvested only 15 kg of black gram from my 0.8 ha farm, which should have ideally produced 600 kg,” he says.

Kerala turns semi-arid

Frequent spotting of peacock is considered ominous for Kerala, and rightly so. This summer, the bird, which is usually found in dry, semi-arid areas, invaded the nearly parched farmlands of Kasaragod, Kannur, Malappuram, Palakkad and Thrissur districts, damaging the crops.

The excess pre-monsoon showers between February and May have somewhat mitigated the impacts of the deficit in the last two monsoon seasons, says S Sudevan, director, Meteorological Centre, Thiruvananthapuram. It will, however, not be sufficient to tide over the water shortage being felt across the state. “The drought is beco ming worse by the day,” admits Shekhar Kuria kose, member secretary, Kerala State Disaster Management Authority. The water level in reservoirs has hit an all-time low. “In most places, the reservoirs have water that will last only for a couple of weeks,” says A Shainamol, managing director of the Kerala Water Authority. In the last week of April, reservoirs that supply water to the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram had enough to meet the city’s demands for just two weeks. Water shortage has also impacted power gene ration. On April 19, reservoirs under the Kerala State Electricity Board were at 23 per cent of their storage capacity, the lowest in four years.

An alarmed administration has swung into action. It has started monitoring and capping water supplied to industries and has imposed a temporary ban on drilling new borewells in affected areas. Since April, the Thiruvanantha puram authorities have capped domestic water supply to two hours a day and are installing water ATMs. The government has also kickstarted the Haritha Keralam mission to revive water bodies and promote rainwater harvesting.

Karnataka villages see mass exodus

It is difficult to find young people in the villages of Karnataka. Barring the old, the infirm and the rich who can afford to install deep borewells that can cost up to Rs 6 lakh, all others have migrated to cities for work, mostly with textile factories and garment units. Even wealthy farmers do not remain immune from the impact of drought. In Amanaghatta village of Tumkur district, coconut and areca nut farms look stressed, and the dry fronds tell their tale. “If it does not rain in the next two months, we are finished,” says Gurulinganna, a wealthy farmer from the village. Once nourished by the Hemavathi, the biggest tributary of the Cauvery, the village today looks parched due to consecutive monsoon failure and diversion of the Hemavathi water to Tamil Nadu.

Meanwhile, some farmers in Melkote village of Dodballapur district are innovating ways to tide over drought. Jagdish Chandra and his brothers have dug a wide pit on their 7.2 ha farm and lined it with a plastic sheet to collect whatever little rainwater they receive. They have also made trenches across their field for the rainwater to seep below. But those with small landholdings have quit farming and are relying on their cattle for a living. Even this turns out to be difficult. A truck- load of fodder, which used to cost Rs 5,000, sells for Rs 50,000 now, says Umesha from Adakamare nahalli village. He sold both his cows last month.

Andhra wages a ‘war on drought’

The Rayalseema region of Andhra Pradesh, where the monsoon has failed for the sixth consecutive season, has become so arid that it has begun resembling a desert. Coastal Andhra Pradesh is increasingly becoming parched. The prevailing distress can be gauged from the fact that only 1.95 million ha were under cultivation this rabi season as against the target of 2.7 million ha. The area under cultivation reduced by 250,000 ha in 2016 kharif season. To alleviate the situation, the gover nment has launched a “war on drought” by deplo ying 13,000 rain guns (micro-irrigation device) and sprinklers. But the government’s own esti mates show that the initiative has had little impact on the ground. For instance, adding sprinklers and rain guns has ensured groundnut yield of 213 kg from 0.4 ha against a normal yield of 1,000 kg. This is worrying because the state government has already pumped Rs 280 crore into the initiative.

Of late, farmers in the
Cauvery delta have been growing
black gram along with paddy to
reduce their dependence on water.
But this year even the hardy black
gram has failed to deliver (Photo: Bhaskarjyoti Goswami)

The state government has also undertaken an ambitious scheme to interlink river basins in the state, which will cost Rs 1 lakh crore to the state exchequer, and plans to set up 20,000 check dams for effective groundwater recharge.

The nascent state of Telangana, which has been chronically drought-hit, battled severe water scarcity between 2014 and 2016. But the summer rains last year brought 20 per cent more rainfall to the region. This has revived the Godavari river, which had for the first time in 50 years almost completely dried up. The river now flows above the normal level. While farmers expect a relatively good harvest this rabi season, the possibilities of a return of severe drought-like conditions are very real if the southwest monsoon fails this year.

Worst is yet to come

On April 18, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) predicted normal southwest monsoon rains for the country. But it does not seem to have generated much hope among the farmers of South India who have borne the brunt of overestimated IMD forecasts for the past two monsoons.

Now that temperatures have breached the 40oC mark in many parts of South India, the region stares at another water crisis. IMD predicts an “above normal” summer for South India this year. Several seasonal rivers and wells have been dry for months now. “The next couple of months are going to be very tough,” says Natarajan, a resident of Tamil Nadu’s Nagakudi village. The desperation may add fuel to the simmering confli cts that four of the five states are embroiled in.

The Cauvery dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing of water which reached fever pitch in the mid-2016 is likely to reach a boil if there is a delay in the onset of the summer monsoon. Tamil farmers blame the Central government of being complicit in Karnataka’s refusal to release Cauvery waters despite orders from the court to share the deficiency in the flow of the river. Since June last year, Karnataka has released only slightly more than a third of the 190 TMC ft (thousand million cubic feet) of water that it was supposed to release according to the water sharing formula.

“The Centre has failed to enforce the mandate to share deficits of flow in the Cauvery between states. If this is not resolved soon, in time for the traditional water release in June, there is no telling what could transpire,” warns P Maniyarasan, convenor of the Cauvery Rights Retrieval Committee, that has been protesting outside the district collector’s office in Thanjavur.

The Andhra Pradesh-Telangana fight over the Krishna waters is calm for the time being. It would be fair to say the successful winter rains in parts of Telangana are partly to thank but a failure of the summer monsoon could be a trigger for a resumption of the paused conflict.

The story has been taken from the 16-31 May, 2017 edition of Down To Earth magazine

Move from news to views and get in-depth reports on issues that matter to you, every fortnight.
Subscribe now »

We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Standing the test of drought

Standing the test of drought

After the 1999 monsoon failed in several areas of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, there is a serious drought. Summer is a good four months away, and already there are reports of riots and deaths over water. But several villages are well equipped to face the water scarcity. While travelling through the region, a Down To Earth reporter found that the villages that have built water harvesting structures do not have a drinking water problem, and some even have enough for irrigation

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

Scroll To Top