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Staring drought in the face

By Rahul Goswami

With 167 districts being declared drought hit, including in major grain producing states, and several others registering a deficit rainfall, the central government is preparing to put into action its Crisis Management Plan for Drought

Agro-climatic conditions in India midway into August could not be grimmer. The rain deficit is now moderate at least, and otherwise severe, in most of the meteorological subdivisions. There are outright drought conditions in several states including major foodgrain producing states. The water stocks position is worsening in the country's major reservoirs and will be under extraordinary stress if there is not even a marginal revival in the south-west monsoon. Retail prices of items in the basic food basket are rising, with pulses recording the highest increases in consuming centres all over India.

From June 25, 2009 several state governments have issued drought declarations. The list so far is:
June 25- Manipur issued drought declarations for all nine districts.
July 14 - Assam issued drought declarations for 14 out of 27 districts.
15 July - Nagaland issued drought declarations for all 11 districts.
July 20 - Jharkhand issued drought declarations for four out of 24 districts.
July 22 - Assam issued drought declarations for the remaining 13 districts.
July 25 - Uttar Pradesh issued drought declarations for 20 out of 71 districts.
July 26 - Uttar Pradesh issued drought declarations for a further 27 districts.
July 30 - Uttar Pradesh issued drought declarations for another 11 districts (total 58 out of 71).
July 31 - Jharkhand issued drought declarations for a further seven districts.
August 3 - Jharkhand issued drought declarations for the remaining 13 districts.
August 6 - Himachal Pradesh issued drought declarations for all 12 districts.
August 10 - Bihar issued drought declarations for 26 out of 40 districts.

Absent from this list (which totals 167 districts) are districts in the Uttarakhand, Punjab, Haryana-Chandigarh-Delhi, East Madhya Pradesh, Vidarbha, Marathwada, Telengana, Coastal Andhra Pradesh and Rayalaseema meteorological subdivisions. They have all recorded deficits of 34% to 59%, with the deficit for Haryana-Chandigarh-Delhi at 66% and the deficit for Western UP at 68%. 

Andhra Pradesh is reported to be heading for its most severe drought in 50 years. The state has received only 153.8 mm rainfall against its normal of 624 mm. This is the lowest-ever rainfall recorded until mid-August in the last 50 years. If dry conditions persist in the three meteorological subdivisions that cover Andhra Pradesh, the state government may declare up to three-fourths of the mandals (districts) drought-hit.

The shortfall in rain has led agriculture departments in the major states which grow foodgrain and commercial crops to begin revising estimates for the kharif (autumn harvest) 2009. Scanty rainfall has delayed the sowing of major kharif crops in Uttar Pradesh, with state agriculture directorate officials anticipating a drop of 20-30% in yields this season. Moreover, till the last week of July, paddy was being sown in 2.98 million hectares, a rate which is likely to result in a final sowing area for paddy of 5 million hectares, considerably less than the sowing area target of 5.95 million hectares. In Maharashtra, the coverage of crop land under cereals has declined 9% per cent, that of all foodgrain is down 5% already, and land under oilseeds is down by 6%.

On August 10, 2009, the India Meteorological Department reduced its rainfall estimates for the year to place it at its lowest since 2002. In that year, 399 districts in India were declared as being affected by drought (Andhra Pradesh 22, Chhattisgarh 16, Gujarat 14, Haryana 19, Himachal Pradesh 12, Jharkhand 22, Karnataka 24, Kerala 11, Madhya Pradesh 33, Maharashtra 33, Orissa 30, Punjab 17, Rajasthan 32, Tamil Nadu 28, Uttar Pradesh 70, Uttaranchal 13 and West Bengal 3). This is the first time the Meteorological

Department has revised its monsoon estimates for a third time. The prolonged

August dry spell signals that a revival, even if it does come, will be insufficient to make a significant difference to kharif 2009 and to water stocks.

In response, the central government is marshalling frontline departments and activating its Crisis Management Plan for Drought. This plan is coordinated by the Drought Management Division of the Department of Agriculture and Co-operation, Ministry of Agriculture. The Crisis Management Plan for Drought operates using the perspective that:

  • Up to 16% of the country's total area is drought-prone and annually about 50 million people are exposed to the crisis.
  • Up to 68% of the total sown area is subject to drought and drought-like conditions.
  • About 35% of India's area receives rainfall between 750 and 1,125 mm and is drought-prone.
  • Most drought-prone areas lie in the arid (19.6%), semi-arid (37%) and sub-humid (21%) zones which occupy 77.6% of our total land area.
  • About 33% of India's land area receives less than 750 mm of rainfall and is chronically drought-prone.
  • About 21% of the country's area (in peninsular India and Rajasthan) receives less than 750 mm rainfall.
  • Rainfall is erratic in four out of 10 years.

The national drought crisis management group has been designed to deal with various phases of drought. It is chaired by the Additional Secretary & Central Drought Relief Commissioner. Members consist of ‘nodal officers’ of the following ministries and departments: Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries, Department of Drinking Water Supply, Ministry of Earth Sciences, Ministry of Environment & Forests, Department of Food & Public Distribution, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Ministry of Home Affairs, India Meteorological Department, Ministry of Labour & Employment, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas, Ministry of Power, Ministry of Railways, Department of Rural Development, Ministry of Urban

Development, Ministry of Water Resources, and Ministry of Women & Child Development. Its member secretary is the Joint Secretary (Drought Management).

In affected states, a similar organisation is to be mobilised when drought is declared. At district level, the district magistrate/collector heads the crisis management group to deal with the issue at sub-district/block/taluka level. Besides state relief commissioners and state agriculture secretaries, line departments, offices and agencies of the central government are to nominate officers (of at least department director level) to manage the needs of affected populations.

Water stocks is an immediate concern. As an example, Jharkhand's reservoirs hold water at half the capacity they should be for this time of year. Tenughat, with a full capacity of 821 million cubic metres (mcm) currently has only 257 mcm, a full quarter under the storage level at the same time last year. Maithon, with a full capacity of 471 mcm, is only 27% full, compared to its 78% at the same time in 2008. In Himachal Pradesh, Gobind

Sagar (Bhakra) has 6.22 billion cubic metres capacity (bcm) but is currently at 39% of that capacity, well under the 83% that it was at this time last year. Also in Himachal Pradesh, Pong with a full capacity of 6.15 bcm is at 24% of its full level, much below the 75% level it was at in August 2008.

The central concern is that drought and allied conditions will adversely affect an economy that has showed signs of recovery after last year's global financial crisis. There will be several immediate impacts. States with districts declared as being affected by drought will seek financial and foodgrain assistance from the central government. Farmers will ask for more subsidies for diesel. On August 3, the Ministry of Agriculture issued its notification on the diesel subsidy - "to enable the farmers to provide supplementary irrigation through diesel pumpsets in the drought and deficit rainfall affected areas to protect the standing crops; this will help in mitigating the adverse impact of drought/deficit rainfall conditions on foodgrain production". 

The provision is for "50% subsidy on the cost of diesel to the affected farmers for up to three protective irrigations subject to a maximum total subsidy of Rs 1,000 per hectare, limited to maximum of two hectares per farmer" and is applicable to districts in which the rainfall deficit is more than 50% (as on July15) or to districts which have been declared as drought-affected.

There is also the anticipation, at the central level, that more money will need to be allocated for importing foodgrain, pulses and sugar from international markets. The implication is that the widespread drought declarations will prompt the central government (and affected state governments) to cut back on social sector spending. In addition, state governments are also expected to demand interest subsidies by the central government on farm loans extended by commercial banks and regional rural banks.

(Maps have been created from IMD material and from material taken from the Climate Prediction Center (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

(Rahul Goswami is an independent journalist based in Goa) 

Infochange News & Features, August 2009