The rain gods love a good drought

The rain gods love a good drought
Come June, people across the country crane their sweaty necks looking up at the skies expecting water to magically pour down. Streets across the country get dotted with umbrellas and the parched soil gets drenched with the first acid rain of the season. However, this year, there may be fewer umbrellas after the sweltering heat wave recedes. That is if the met pundits’ predictions of a gloomy monsoon do indeed come true.

Consternation has been already triggered post the forecast of a bleak monsoon. This would be the second consecutive year of drought. An average or normal monsoon means rainfall between 96 and 104 percent of a 50-year average of 89 cm during a four-month season from June. Rainfall below 90 percent of the average is considered a drought year. Since 2004, this is the first time weak rainfall has been recorded in both south-west and northeast monsoon seasons. In 2009, the south-west monsoon had totally failed.

The Indian monsoon is the most important weather forecast in the world as Indian farmers are the largest agricultural group in the world, banking heavily on a single annual weather phenomenon. Farming accounts for about 16 percent of the Indian economy. It must also be noted that more than half the population is engaged in rain-fed farming.  The June-September season accounts for about 70 percent of annual rainfall.  If the monsoon misses the mark during this period, the already distressed farmers will have a harrowing time--after last year’s failed rains and unseasonal showers this March and April.

Deficient rainfall is bound to pose a massive challenge to the Government; its great plans to revive the subdued economy could run into roadblocks. Patchy rains have a cascading effect—the overall economy suffers, the biggest being on the rural economy, the consumption demand may not revive, inflation may rise and vegetable prices may shoot up.

Groundwater in India is a critical resource, on which the farm sector relies heavily. More than 60 percent of irrigated agriculture and 85 percent of drinking water supplies are dependent on groundwater, according to a World Bank report.

After the Green Revolution, groundwater use for irrigation shot up immensely. An enormous Government subsidy, the extension of credit and subsidies for irrigation equipment, and cheap electricity all cumulatively led to excessive water use resulting in sharp fall in water tables. The crisis has further deepened as farmers have shifted to cash crops over the years.

Following rampant extraction of groundwater across the country, water levels have plummeted at an alarming rate and pose the biggest threat to rural livelihoods and food security. In some states, reserves have dropped to critical levels, official data show. The water table is considerably lower in South, West and Central India. However, in the East, which has plentiful groundwater resources, it is a different story. Irrigation has suffered due to the shortage of power, required to extract water—particularly, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal have been hit the hardest.

Farming in the northwestern region--especially Punjab, Rajasthan, Delhi and Haryana--considered India’s granary, has become unsustainable due to overexploitation (almost cent percent) of groundwater resources.  The situation is equally distressing in the southeast.

Over the years, governments have been facing the spectre of water shortage, but they are yet to come out with viable solutions. A year of deficient rainfall impacts food production, leads to power shortage and drinking water scarcity. Hydropower provides about 22 percent of India’s electricity. Thus, water, energy and food are inextricably linked. Together, these form the Water-Energy-Food (W-E-F) nexus. Water is an input for agricultural products and along the entire agro-food supply chain. Energy is required to distribute water and for food: to pump water from groundwater or surface water sources to power tractors and irrigation machinery, and to process and transport agricultural produce. The W-E-F nexus is a new approach in support of food security and sustainable agriculture and is being debated since 2008.

In the next 30 years, India may still need to produce around 400 million tonnes of food grain, and this will further add strain on the available water resources. Food security and rural livelihoods are intrinsically linked to water availability and use.  Any further decline in water resources will greatly impact food and livelihood security.

If current trends continue, in 20 years about 60 percent of all India’s aquifers will be in a critical condition. This will have serious implications for agricultural sustainability, long-term food security, livelihoods and economic growth. It is estimated that over a quarter of the country’s harvest will be at risk. There is an urgent need to change the status quo, the World Bank report cautions.

How long is India going to muse over vagaries of monsoon waiting till June every year for nimbus clouds to serenade over skies? Predictions are also going off the mark, despite using advanced computer systems. Climatologists blame it on global warming which could cause frequent and severe failures of the Indian summer monsoon in the next two centuries, new research suggests.

Governments in succession have failed to harvest rainwater; it offers under-exploited opportunities for drylands and the predominantly rain-fed farming systems. Experts also suggest providing subsidised solar units to pump water for irrigation, but this will only lead to increased exploitation of groundwater.

India should seriously consider building aqueducts like the Governor Edmund G. Brown California Aqueduct, in the US, which is a system of canals, tunnels and pipelines that conveys water collected from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and valleys of Northern and Central California to Southern California.

The Government needs to be cautious. Despite its repeated assurances, its controversial bill to 
acquire land for industries and building infrastructure will further deplete groundwater. Conversely, it will affect the farm sector significantly. Coupled with farm stress, climate change and farmers’ suicides, this combined onslaught may turn out to be a nightmare for the present dispensation.

The author is an independent journalist
K V Venkatasubramanian

K V Venkatasubramanian

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