Extreme rainfall deficiencies were not the only causes of famines in semi-arid regions of southern India in the 18th to 20th centuries, according to research that blends paleoclimate reconstruction and British administrative records for the area.

A minor 13% to 17% deficit in rainfall, rather than extreme events, triggered famines in southern India’s semi-arid regions, including the Great Famine of 1875–1878 and the Indian Famine of 1899–1900, which, according to the colonial records, were caused by “rain failure” killing millions.

Climate change risks

The findings underscore the need to consider the potential impacts of minor fluctuations in rainfall patterns in drought-prone semi-arid regions in climate change risk assessments. “We focus on understanding extreme events (such as floods due to extreme rainfall). And that is critical because our infrastructures and practices are not equipped to deal with these extremes, given that these extremes have become more frequent,” the study’s corresponding author Atreyee Bhattacharya told Mongabay-India.

She cautions that “we are vulnerable even more than we think we are” because minor fluctuations are not given importance due to the assumption that one is resilient to these fluctuations, which are part of normal climate variability.

“It appears that we are vulnerable to ‘normal’ variations in climate, particularly rainfall, especially in rain-fed agricultural societies in our country and across the Indian Ocean region,” Bhattacharya of the University of Colorado-Boulder, the United States, said. “Our practices and decisions do not even factor in normal variability in rainfall.”

Co-author Gaurav Arora of the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology-Delhi emphasised that there were socioeconomic and administrative factors that would have contributed to the famines in the semi-arid region of peninsular India “at least in cases where rainfall shortages were modest (relative to a long-term normal rainfall level for the region)”.

Motivated to unravel how “vulnerable we are to climate variability”, Bhattacharya and colleagues wanted to independently probe how much rainfall deficits were considered “rain failure”, enough to cause the repeated instances of famines. “We used India Meteorological Department’s rainfall record (from 1870), tree ring-based reconstructions of humidity and cave carbonate (speleothem) based reconstructions of regional relative humidity to assess rainfall fluctuations,” she added.

What data shows

India Meteorological Department and historical rain gauge reconstructions show that most famines struck when average rainfall in the southern interior peninsula deviated by 13% and 17% in the western interior.

In addition, they dug through information in over 600 British administrative documents (including 19th-century records associated with Bombay and Madras Presidencies) preserved in the National Archives of India, that takes one through socioeconomic upheavals and human impacts (famines) associated with ‘rain failures’ over 218 years (1729–1947). They were looking for climate-related information: records of climate and impacts.

The Bombay Presidency, headquartered in Bombay (present-day Mumbai), included parts of the present-day states of Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat and western Karnataka. The Madras presidency (headquartered in Madras; present-day Chennai) spanned present-day Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and Odisha.

The records contain discussions on famines due to rain failures of 1803-1807, 1811-1812, 1823-1824, 1832-1833, 1838-1840, 1868-1869, 1875-1878, 1896 and 1899-1900. These famines affected several districts of Madras and Bombay presidencies and usually lasted for three to four years, including the Great Famine of 1875-1878 and the Indian Famine of 1899-1900.

Also recorded are famines of 1845 (in Gujarat), 1854-1855 (parts of Bombay and Madras Presidencies), 1862 (Ahmednagar) and 1882 (Mysore). When the reduction in rainfall continued for a second year, especially if accompanied by a decrease in summer and winter rainfall, cascading socioeconomic impacts extracted severe human costs such as starvation, death, slavery and migration, the authors write in the paper.

The famine of 1875-1876 prompted the formulation of the Famine Commission in 1880; the last report by the commission was in 1901.

The Great Famine likely killed over 5 crore people in South and East Asia, Brazil and Africa between 1876 and 1878. In India, it claimed between 1.22 crore and 2.93 crore lives. Researchers in a 2021 paper dubbed it as “arguably the worst environmental disaster” and “one of the worst calamities of any sort in at least the last 150 years, with a loss of life comparable to the World Wars and the influenza epidemic of 1918/19”.

According to the Environment and Society project of Germany’s Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, the Great Famine, also known as the Southern India Famines or Great Madras Famine, began in 1876. It affected South and southwestern India – Madras (Chennai), Mysore (Mysuru), Hyderabad, and Bombay (Mumbai) – for two years. “During its second year, the famine also spread north to some regions of the central provinces and the United Provinces (present-day Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand), and a small area in Punjab to the northwest, covering a total area of 257,000 square miles.”

Recent crisis

Southern India was hit by severe drought from 2016 to 2018, which led to a water crisis in Chennai, India’s sixth-largest city of 1.1 crore inhabitants, Mongabay-India reported earlier. The drought followed low rainfall during the northeast monsoon, which occurs during the winter. According to researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, who investigated the causes of past flash droughts in India between 1951 and 2016, the 2016 to 2018 drought was worse than the Great Madras Famine.

Famine-affected people waiting for relief in Bangalore, 1877. Photo credit: Illustrated London News/Wikimedia Commons

Lauding the research by Bhattacharya et al, climate scientist Jayanarayanan Kuttippurath, who was not associated with the study, agreed with the suggestion to factor in the potential impacts of more frequent low-level anomalies in drought-prone semi-arid regions for climate change risk assessment.

“We generally do not look at minor fluctuations,” Kuttippurath, an assistant professor at IIT-Kharagpur’s Centre for Oceans, Rivers, Atmosphere and Land Sciences told Mongabay-India. “We know the socioeconomic situation of those years… they were very different. There were limited resources and we did not have advanced technologies that we have today so they may have also contributed to the impact of the famines.”

Gaurav Arora explained that drought-prone regions like the semi-arid regions are by definition poorer in their natural resource endowments.

“Long-term deficient rainfalls imply not only lack of water access but also poorer quality soils that are erosive,” Gaurav Arora. “Therefore, traditional agricultural practices are for subsistence and not typically for market-friendly products like cash crops. However, the advent of technologies like irrigation dams (in the British era) and the proliferation of tubewells (in independent India, post-1950s) has meant that these resource-poor regions have shifted to cultivating water and nutrient-thirsty crops like sugarcane and cotton. Such shifts in land use are often termed as ‘development’ in the policy domain.”

Given that the southern Indian semi-arid region did not exhibit resilience to “small” rainfall shocks under subsistence agriculture, Arora questioned if one can say that “these regions will be resilient to more frequent rainfall shocks under future climate change scenarios when being subjected to cash-crop agriculture”?

A United Nations Special Report on Drought 2021 estimated the impact of severe droughts on India’s GDP to be between 2% to 5%. India’s Jalshakti Ministry notes that around 68% of the country is prone to drought in varying degrees, of which 35% receives rainfall between 750 mm and 1,125 mm and is considered drought-prone while 33% receiving less than 750 mm is chronically drought-prone.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.