Every morning, 47-year-old Naveen K walks along a 35-km stretch of the Kaveri River near his home in Amangala town, in the Kodagu district of Karnataka. He checks for illegal nets, as this part of the river is protected against fishing by the Coorg Wildlife Society, a non-profit organisation working to conserve wildlife in the region.

Naveen is a small, independent farmer, who grows coffee and paddy on his one-and-a-half acre farm and depends on the rain for a good harvest. But over the last several years, changing rain patterns have affected the produce.

“In a good rain year, I get 30 quintals of paddy per acre,” Naveen says. “But when there is not enough rain or too much rain, the yield drops by half.” As a result, the income is not enough for his family of four. He has two daughters, one in Class 8 and the other in Class 11. To support his family, he also works as a guard with the Coorg Wildlife Society.

Kodagu district spans 4,102 km2. It is also known as Coorg, and lies in the Western Ghats at an elevation of 900m to 1,750 m. The region is an important biodiversity site, home to rare flora such as the endangered Myristicca swamps, and a variety of wildlife including elephants, tigers, rare amphibians, insects and the iconic Mahseer fish. The district is known for its cool climate (mean temperatures range from 20 degrees Celsius to 24 degrees Celsius), misty hills, lush green valleys, cascading waterfalls, and vast swaths of coffee plantations and paddy fields.

The district receives an average rainfall of 4,000 mm. But in the last three decades, the district has witnessed erratic rainfall. A study published in the International Journal of Environment, Agriculture and Biotechnology analysed recorded climatic data over 33 years from 1980 to 2014, and found that total rainfall in the district has decreased by 7.5%. The average rainfall from 1980-’85 was 2,599.6 mm, which decreased to 2,402.5 mm during the 2009-’14 period. There was a high variability of rain from month to month, a rise in temperature, and declining humidity levels.

Robusta, Arabic coffee hit hardest

Chengappa PG, the author of the study and ex-vice chancellor at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru, said, “This kind of variability in weather, especially the rise in temperature, affects crop production, especially Arabica coffee as it requires cool climate and is grown under shade. Robusta coffee is susceptible to both high rainfall and low rainfall as it needs an optimum water level.” Karnataka state accounts for 60% of India’s coffee production, of which 80% comes from Kodagu district, he pointed out.

In the 1980s, the proportion of Arabica to Robusta production in the district used to be 60:40. But now the proportion of Arabica production, considered to be more superior than Robusta, has fallen to 40%, Chengappa said. “The decline in rainfall is the major reason as it also mitigates the temperature changes. When there is not enough moisture in the soil, the nutrition won’t be absorbed and the yield decreases.” He added that the changing climate has caused an estimated decline of 8%-10% in overall coffee yield.

CP Aiyappa, secretary of the Coorg Wildlife Society, owns 30 acres of coffee plantation in Amangala. He said that rising temperatures due to climate change have made the coffee plant more vulnerable to pest attacks. The biggest threat to Arabica coffee is white stem borer, a beetle that eats up the main stems, while Robusta is susceptible to short hole borer and berry borer which eat into the shoot of the crop.

Kodagu district normally receives the southwest monsoon rains from June to August. “We don’t have proper monsoons anymore, where the weather is cloudy, moist and raining from June to August, which the coffee plant requires,” Aiyappa said. “The rains have been failing in June, so the coffee berry matures faster and there is more shoot growth, and so the pests have more food to grow on.”

On the other hand, coffee needs a dry period from December to February, when the crop is harvested and set to dry. “Now, we don’t have that gap of two months without rain that was the general pattern when people converted the land to coffee.”

The Tadiandamol peak in Kodagu. Credit: Nativeplants garden, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Deforestation raises temperature

Large-scale land-cover changes in the Western Ghats leading to deforestation has contributed to an increase in mean temperatures by 0.5 degrees Celsius and decline in rainy days, according to a study by TV Ramachandran, Professor at the Center for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. Kodagu district has lost 66,892 ha of pristine forest cover, mainly due to infrastructure development driven by tourism and the expansion of plantations. The region had 32% of forest cover in 1973, whereas in 2018 the forest cover declined to 19%, which mainly come under protected areas.

“Large scale land cover changes involving native species forests to monoculture plantations, and land degradation leading to deforestation in the ecologically fragile Western Ghats is the prime factor responsible for micro-climate alterations threatening the sustenance of horticulture crops,” Racmachandran said.

“We used to get more rain in June/July, but now there is a shift to August/September,” Chengappa pointed out. “If one considers the long-term effect, the total rainfall amount has not changed much, but the pattern and intensity of rainfall has changed, so that affects the crop cycle.”

Kushi Bheemaiah grows coffee, pepper and paddy on her 25-acre farm in the town of Siddapur in Kodagu district. She said that as the rains don’t come in time in June, there’s no waterlogging in the fields, which is essential to start work on paddy crops. “Because of the emotional connect to the land and what we do, we even pumped water for a few years from an irrigation tank where rain water collects,” Bheemaiah said. But it was too much of an effort in doing it, both physically and emotionally, as the yield was less and whatever little they got was eaten by elephants. “So we have stopped growing paddy, partly because of the changing rain pattern and partly because of elephants.”

Floods, droughts, landslides

A 2022 study published in the Indian Journal of Ecology noted that this erratic pattern of rainfall in the district may also lead to flash floods or drought situations. Bharath AL, the author of the study by the National Institute of Hydrology, Belagavi, said, “The analysis showed that rainfall events which are more than 50 mm/day are set to increase in a few stations of the districts. This shows that the intensity of rainfall is increasing and thereby a chance of flood. On the other hand, the number of rainy days is decreasing after 2005.”

Bharath pointed out that lower intensity rainfall that allows the soil to retain water and contribute to groundwater is decreasing, thereby reducing the amount of water in streams with smaller catchment areas for irrigation.

Ganapathy, a farmer in Kushalnagar, uses borewell water to irrigate his three-acre farm where he grows coffee, pepper and arecanut. When there isn’t enough rainfall and the groundwater runs low, he uses an irrigation pump to pump water from the nearby stream. But often, even the stream water runs low. With not enough water to irrigate his farm, his yield drops from 30 quintals to 25 quintals per acre.

A representative photo of coffee berries. Credit: Aniket Suryavanshi from Solapur, India, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

With changes in the land cover, the catchment loses its ability to retain water, and the water scarcity in turn affects small farmers, said Ramachandran. “Our study in the Western Ghats shows that when the catchment has native species vegetation of over 60% spatial extent, the rivers and streams are perennial and the earning of farmers is about Rs 1.54 lakh per acre per year with multiple crops, as the water is available throughout the year.” In contrast to this, farmers in the degraded catchment or in catchments dominated by monoculture plantations earn Rs 32,000 per acre per year, as water is available in the streams for only four-six months.

Aiyyappa said that many streams don’t have enough water during the cultivation months. Earlier, by July-end, farmers would be done with sowing and transplanting of paddy. “But now, we have extremely dry spells followed by extremely wet spells after August, which is not helpful. The amount of rain we should get in a month falls in just two days, there are cloudbursts.” When there is excess rainfall , the soil can’t hold the moisture, and this not only affects the crops but also causes landslides and floods.

In 2018, between August 15-17, Kodagu received 768 mm of rainfall. As a result of the intense rain that fell over a period of 72 hours, Kodagu district witnessed severe landslides and flooding. The landslides damaged 48 villages of two taluks, Madikeri and Somwarpet. Twenty deaths were reported and nearly 130,000 ha of agriculture crops, coffee and other horticulture crops worth an estimated Rs 506 crore were damaged. Four thousand houses were damaged and 800 homes were washed away.

Unplanned development, catastrophic change

Rampant forest degradation due to unplanned developmental activities during the past three decades have resulted in severe calamity in Kodagu, an ecologically fragile region, Ramachandran’s 2019 study, following the floods, said.

Back in 2012 the Gadgil committee, also known as The Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, had recommended that 67% of the Western Ghats including the Kodagu region should be classified as Ecologically Sensitive Zones, and that all development activities in the area should be stopped. Later in 2014, the Kasturirangan report whittled down the area to be declared as Ecologically Sensitive to 37%, of which 20,668 sq km falls in Karnataka.

“The developmental activities and proposals are not in tune with either the Kasturirangan or the Madhav Gadgil committee reports,” TV Ramachandran pointed out. “Large scale land cover changes are happening, with mushrooming of resorts even in the ecologically fragile valleys resulting in disrupting of stream networks, unscientific developmental activities evident from vertical cuts in the linear projects, and too many rail and road-widening projects beyond the carrying capacity of the region.”

As a result of all of this, escalating greenhouse gases will cause further changes in the climate. “Local people will lose their livelihood, life and property,” he warned, “while decision makers, consultants and contractors will loot natural resources under the banner of ‘developmental activities’, and the state economy would lose the contribution of ecosystem services – climate moderation, water retention, etc.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.