Saturday, August 22, 2009

Intensity and Impact of Drought- Looking Forward

With over 250 out of 533 meteorological districts declared as drought-hit and rice production alone expected to decline above 10 million tons, the situation in the country on food front is grim. The cascading effect of drought on many sectors is discernible, necessitating strategies on priority. The prolonged monsoon failure is likely to affect stored moisture dependant rabi season for early sowing of crops. Depleted water in reservoirs would aggravate the situation unless drastic steps are taken.

South west monsoon is crucial for agriculture production with kharif crops comprising cereals, pulses, oil seeds and vegetables. Livestock and fisheries sectors also thrive well with copious rainfall. In normal rainfall years the productivity showed upward trend, while any deviation in rainfall tended to lower productivity curve depending the deficit levels. The cumulative rainfall during the season is a major parameter to define either excess or deficient rainfall. If the shortfall is between 20% and 59% of the normal rainfall, it is defined as ‘deficient’, while shortfall above 60% in the cumulative rainfall is considered ‘scanty’. The country experienced both in different States.

Intensity of drought: From the very beginning of monsoon there was erratic rainfall in some States. By early August the deficiency in cumulative rainfall was 25%, but within ten days increased to 29%. By mid August the Meteorological department placed 115 districts under ‘scanty’ rainfall category, with ‘deficient’ category enhanced to 262 districts. The normal or excess rainfall occurred only in 149 districts. When computed on the basis of normal average rainfall over five years this year’s failure is much higher in ten States. The announcement of daily and weekly fluctuations resulted in statements like ‘monsoon will recover’, ‘grim monsoon’, ‘do not panic’ which reflected on lack of adequate preparations to face the crisis. By the time the realization on the intensity of drought dawned it was too late for many initiatives. The infrastructure, expertise and funds in plenty did not help in time as people expected. Even to declare the States and country as ‘drought-hit’ was debated for long.

State scenario: The Western Uttar Pradesh was the worst hit with 68% shortfall, followed by Delhi-Haryana-Chandigarh belt with 66%; Eastern Uttar Pradesh was better with 53%. All the three regions of Andhra Pradesh recorded deficiencies as high as 59% in Telangana, 51% in Rayalaseema, but little less in coastal regions with 46%. The situation was no better in Himachal Pradesh (51%), Jharkhand (49%) Marathwada (47%) and Uttarakhand (42%). Although there was slight improvement in Punjab and Bihar due to mid season showers, the deficiency increased later to 35% and 40% respectively. In the North East region the shortfall ranged from 33% (Arunachal Pradesh) to 37% (Assam and other States). Although the deficiency was less in mid July in Tamil Nadu and Puduchery (16%) and Northern Karnataka (17%), the cumulative rainfall declined to 22% in these regions by the first week of August. Similar deficiency was recorded in Gujarat (from 22% to 31%), West Madhya Pradesh ( from 21% to 28%) and East Madhya Pradesh (from 35% to 39%). Thus, monsoon played havoc in major parts of ‘food baskets’ of India.

Ground realities: The immediate impact of the drought was that majority of kharif crops could not be raised and even those raised with initial good rainfall suffered later due to water stress. It is estimated that the deficit in rainfall in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand took a heavy toll of 57.10 lakh hectares of paddy fields. The area under groundnut fell short by 11.28 lakh hectares, sugarcane by 1.29 lakh hectares and coarse cereals by 1.17 lakh hectares. In Andhra Pradesh both paddy and maize were affected in Warangal district. In Khammam paddy was taken up only under 9000 ha as against 1.15 lakh ha. Only 1.15 lakh ha could be taken up against 8.21 lakh ha under groundnut in Ananthapur due to acute water shortage. Many Kharif vegetables were lost to the tune of lakhs of tons caused by drought stress. In many States, fodder grass suffered with poor growth and barren land, which affected livestock. One of the States reported marked decline in milk production, due to water and fodder starved cows. With drying up of small ponds and lakes even fishes died causing hardship to low income communities in rural India

Decline in agriculture productivity: As a consequence of much lowered cultivable land for food crops, including nutritionally rich vegetables, the country is poised for a near food crisis, notwithstanding buffer stocks. As the vegetables constitute ‘current consumption’ category of food the people in the adversely affected areas would have gone without normal intake of vegetables which would lead to malnutrition. As admitted by the Union Agriculture Minister 57.10 lakh ha of paddy land could not be cultivated, which amounts to a loss of roughly 13.7 million tons ( at the rate of 2.4 tons per ha). This is a huge kahrif deficit of staple food. Even coarse cereals consumed mostly by rural low income population would show a decline of nearly 0.60 million tons due to 1.17 lakh ha rendered uncultivable. A deficit in groundnut production to approximately 3.28 million tons is anticipated with lowered area of 11.28 lakh ha. Likewise, sugarcane yield is likely to decrease nearly by 30 to 35%. Although estimates are not available, fodder grass production would also be lowered significantly with impact on animals. Reliable estimates are awaited on the shortage of milk production caused by fodder starved animals. Thus the contribution of kharif food production in 2009 to the overall production with rabi by 2009-10 is expected to be much lower than the average food production of last five to ten years. The drought-induced decline in the food production in 2009-10 is likely to be much higher than the other drought years.

Excess or normal rainfall: Fortunately, some of the States in South and East India received fairly good rainfall, some even accounting for excess. So the crops in such situations fared well giving hopes for good yield. The crops included paddy, pulses and oil seeds with vegetables with normal production, though some areas did report decline due to floods. Whether increasing the level of cultivation in these areas would help in solving or compensating the loss suffered due to deficit rainfall in major States? It would not have been possible to increase the potential of the areas without adequate preparations both land wise and input like seed materials. Neither the Central nor the State Governments anticipated the problem, though such contingency plan should be ready in future.

Looking forward: Generally, with the cessation of SW monsoon in September with normal rainfall, ensuring storage of soil moisture used to help greatly rabi crop sowing operations. With North East monsoon supporting the early crop growth, as also irrigation at required stages, crops like wheat and pulses used to perform well with good harvest in April. But, the current year is different with calamitous monsoon with acute water shortage resulting in dried soil and poor to nil conservation. This is going to cause problems for rabi as well, even if the North East monsoon is normal. The shortage of ground water in many places would pose problem to irrigate crops at critical stages. According to the Central Water Commission the water level in the country’s reservoirs is around 38% of total capacity by mid August. A normal SW monsoon would have enhanced the levels in reservoirs but that was not to be this year. This clearly indicates that the dwindling water resources would hamper irrigation for rabi crops. If NE monsoon is also erratic the situation would worsen with difficulties for redemption. The only hope, therefore, is normal NE monsoon rainfall to cope up with the rabi production to sustain the trend in production, though it would not compensate the heavy shortage of kharif. How to tackle the situation to save at least the rabi production? The answer lies in large scale water harvesting structures in buildings to trap rainfall, field moisture conservation strategies, planting of proven stress resistant/tolerant varieties of crops with distribution to farmers in adequate quantities well in time and enhance the efficiency of irrigation channels to be ready to supply water to crops at right time. At the social/ community level, judicious rationing of water for industrial and real estate purposes, strict restriction of water supply for domestic consumption uniformly to all areas including VIPs, heavy penalty for wastage of water and theft are all appropriate measures the Government has to implement with strong political will to save the citizens from impending food crisis.

To sum up, the apparent unpreparedness on the part of the authorities, both Central and State Governments until drought situation worsened in August might serve to learn the unlearnt lessons, despite drought being an age old problem, well researched for decades, with many committee recommendations. The problem is most difficult but not impossible to solve with coordinated strategies with time bound implementation of decisions.

- Dr. Rajagopal V., Ex – Director, CPCRI, Kasargod-

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