A home-grown drought

Monsoon this year has failed most of India, causing drought in even well-irrigated and rainfed areas. Ravleen Kaur reports how our food preferences are making us vulnerable to drought

Published: Tuesday 15 September 2009

A home-grown drought

Hari Achal Singh has been a farmer for as long as he can remember. And that's as long as India has been independent. He recalls his childhood when his family depended on rain for irrigation. "We grew arhar (red gram), bajra (pearl millet), maize, jowar (sorghum) and a variety of wheat that did not require much water," said Singh. In the 1960s the Jawaharlal Nehru government laid a network of canals in Uttar Pradesh; irrigation became easy. "We started growing paddy then."

Five rivers and two canals crisscross Pratapgarh district, but water in them has declined over the years. Paddy is a thirsty crop, so 15 years ago Singh dug a borewell in his one-hectare field in Ashapur village of the district.He found water about eight metres below the surface.

He has deepened his borewell several times, and his crops have survived droughts in the past. He is not so sure this time. He has sown arhar and bajra but his borewell runs dry after one or two hours of pumping water. The well is 58 metres deep. "Drilling below this will be very expensive," said Singh. He blamed decreased rainfall and tree cover for the plummeting groundwater level. Pratapgarh's soil is non-porous, so water does not seep underground easily.

Unusual drought

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Photograph by Prashant Ravi

This year's drought is unusual in the sense that it has hit areas that have good irrigation facilities or receive high rainfall. India has seen 22 major droughts since 1891, mostly in dry regions like Rajasthan. But this year, flood-prone Assam was one of the first states to declare drought. High rainfall areas like Bihar and well-irrigated areas like Punjab and Haryana also suffered drought, said J S Samra, chief executive officer of the National Rainfed Area Authority under the agriculture ministry.

Drought and floods happened together. In Assam the Ranganadi and the Brahmaputra breached embankments after Arunachal Pradesh suddenly released water from reservoirs. This caused flash floods in four districts. In eastern Uttar Pradesh the Ghaghra, Sarada and Saryu rivers flooded several places in August.

Farmers are not asking for food grain like in previous droughts; they want more electricity to pump groundwater, said Samra. Droughts are not new to India but people used to grow crops sustainable in low rainfall. The cropping pattern has changed with the use of groundwater and expansion of canal networks, explained Anupam Mishra, head of the environment division of the Gandhi Peace Foundation.

Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are growing paddy, which was never the predominant crop there because these areas do not receive much rainfall. "We cannot go on extracting groundwater for long," said Vikram Ahuja, a farmer and agri-services businessman in Fazilka district of Punjab.

A satellite study by the American space agency nasa conducted between 2002 and 2008 shows groundwater reserves in northern India have gone down drastically. In northwestern India the groundwater level is estimated to be going down at a rate of four centimetres a year. Over 109 cubic km of groundwater disappeared in the region between 2002 and 2008--double the capacity of India's largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga, said the study published in Nature in August this year.

The Central Ground Water Board's estimates agree with the nasa study.

2009 monsoon skips India
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"If measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage, consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortages of potable water," warned Matt Rodell, the nasa hydrologist who participated in the study.

Changing forecasts by the India Meteorological Department (imd) made drought management difficult. The government declared drought one-and-a-half months after the first disturbing signals. In April, imd declared a normal monsoon, with rainfall likely to be 96 per cent of the long-term average. By mid-August the rainfall was almost 29 per cent below the long-term average (see map).

On August 12, the Central government formed a Group of Ministers to assess the drought in the country, an admission of the fact that the situation is really bad. As on August 18, 246 districts in 10 states were declared drought-hit.

Dry and parched
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Many of the 81 major reservoirs in India have less water this year. Usable water in the Bhakra reservoir is 49 per cent of the last 10 years' average for this time of the year, according to the Central Water Commission. Usually, reservoirs reach the minimum level by May-June and get refilled with monsoon rain (see map on facing page). "We went by imd's forecast and released water to the farmers at the normal rate. The level suddenly went down since no rainfall occurred in July," said Indra Raj, member of the water planning and projects wing of the Central Water Commission.

With some rain in August, the Bhakra reservoir began to fill; by mid-August it had 60 per cent of last year's storage, he added.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asian Network of Dams, Rivers and People, partially blames low levels in reservoirs on excess release of water from Pong, Ranjit Sagar and Bhakra dams to produce maximum power during election time in April. Thakkar said water in the Bhakra reservoir has been decreasing over the past 10 years. "Last year, Bhakra filled up to 44 per cent of its live storage (usable water), while this year it filled up to 38 per cent," he added.

Lost in evaporation
There are more reasons to worry. One is increase in the rate of evaporation. The mean rainfall has come down by four per cent from between 1912 and 1964 to between 1965 and 2006. But the usable rainfall (total rainfall minus evaporation) for the same period has decreased by 12 per cent, according to a study by the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune.

The second reason is the rising trend of intense rainfall over a shorter period. This increases run-off.

The result is increased vulnerability to drought.

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