At first glance, hilly district of Wayanad in Kerala, with its forests, plantations, waterfalls, resorts and homestays, appears to be a flourishing region with tourism as its backbone.

However, the main driver of Wayanad’s economy is agriculture and under the veneer of its sprawling greenery lurks the threat of a severe drought. This was, till recently, an unheard of phenomenon in this ecologically sensitive district and could bring its economy to a halt.

This writer first heard of the impending danger from Ravi, a 55-year-old agricultural labourer, at a bus stop in Kalpetta, the district headquarters.

“Wayanad used to be a lot cooler during the day in November,” Ravi said. “It is just 11 in the morning, and you see I am sweating profusely. Last year we got less rain. It decreased further this year. The climate is unpredictable these days. I think we will face severe drought.”

Ravi’s fears seem to be coming true. The government of Kerala last month declared all 14 districts in the state drought-hit. The situation will worsen if Wayanad, which faced 59% deficit rainfall during the Southwest monsoon (June to September), does not make up for this in the ongoing Northwest monsoon.

A coffee plantation in Wayanad. Coffee is one of the main cash crops of the district. [Photo courtesy MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Wayanad]

Tell-tale signs

Such concerns over water are new to the hilly district, which lies 2,100 metres above sea level. Up until a a few years ago, Wayanad was blessed with heavy rain, which made the climate ideal for cultivating cash crops – such as coffee, pepper, cloves, cardamom, and areca nut – and paddy. About 85%-90% of the population makes a living from agriculture and natural resources.

According to the rain data available at the Regional Agricultural Research Station in Ambalavayal, 25 km east of Kalpetta, the district received an average rainfall of just 1,200 millimetres till the first week of November. Last year, the average rainfall for this period was 1,503 mm, which too was a significant decline from the previous years’ range of 1,900 mm – 2,700 mm.

Prior to the 2000s, the district used to receive more than 3,000 mm of rainfall. A massive drought in Kerala in 2004, however, made its presence felt in this rain-blessed region as well, a deficit that has culminated into the present crisis.

This rainfall deficit has threatened the agrarian economy of the region and many farmers have been complaining about the dip in production.

The signs of the crisis are unmistakable in the border towns of the district.

Jilson Chalakkal a farmer from Pulpally, which shares its border with Karnataka, said his was the worst-hit of the 25 panchayats in the distrct. “My pepper plants have wilted and are unable to bear the heat,” he said. “I am not in a position to irrigate them as there is a severe water shortage in my locality. This is the worst-ever crisis in my life.”

Jilson produced three quintals of pepper till 2014. “This year I invested Rs 50,000 in pepper plantation alone. All my money has gone down the drain.”

The situation is similar in Mullenkolly, another panchayat bordering Karnataka. In both these areas, Kabini river, the main water source in Wayanad, has virtually dried up.

Quarrying of sand is a major environmental issue in Wayand, which is causing its water bodies to dry up.

Shift in cultivation

Wayanad’s agriculture department first got wind of a looming drought when farmers from different parts of the district reported large-scale deaths of earthworms in September. “This indicated the rising temperature in the layer of the soil between topsoil and bedrock,” said Dr P Rajendran, Associate Director at government-run Regional Agricultural Research Station. “We are on the verge of a severe drought. Farmers will bear the brunt of this crisis.”

Experts said the situation is largely man-made, a consequence of taking the bountiful ecology for granted on the one hand, and adopting environmentally unsustainable practices on the other.

Rajendran said that the heavy dependence on rainfall for agriculture aggravated the things. “Farmers never realised the need to collect, store and use rainwater,” he said. “It is high time we spared a thought for water conservation. It would stabilise the ground water level and rescue us from drought.”

The gradual degradation of the environment of this eco-sensitive area has also deepened the crisis. Mass deforestation, loss of paddy fields and quarrying have not only dried up the water tables but also increased the atmospheric temperature. According to data from the Regional Agricultural Research Station, the atmospheric temperature in Wayanad has increased five degree Celsius in just one year. “Earlier, it took 15 to 20 years for a rise of one degree Celsius,” Rajendran said.

Farmers’ growing interest in cultivating banana over paddy, as the former is more profitable, has also exerted pressure on the environment. “Paddy fields conserve water naturally,” said Girigan, Principal Scientist at the Community Biodiversity Centre, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Wayanad. “This stabilises the ground water table. Paddy is the only cultivation that can be done in stagnated water. Now, farmers opt for banana cultivation with an aim to make easy money, ignoring its environmental impact.”

Paddy cultivation has lost its sheen in Wayanad as farmers are opting to grow bananas. [Photo courtesy of MS Swaminathan Research Foundation, Wayanad]

Economic impact

The next few weeks could be make-or-break for the district, because a drought would herald economic woes for Wayanad. “Our cash crops are heavily rain-dependent,” Rajendran said. “Pollination in pepper happens through rain. Coffee plants also require rain during pre-blossom and post-blossom periods.”

Girigan said the drought would have a domino effect on the economy. “Farmers grow perennial crops, such as coffee, pepper and arecanut,” he said. “In the case of crop destruction due to drought, they have to invest heavily for re-planting the trees, and they won’t get any returns for the next six years. A drought would cause a heavy burden on the state exchequer too. The state has to provide drinking water, milk, medical aid to its citizens.”

Girigan said it would be difficult to predict the duration of the crisis. “Drought can even create rain shadow areas in Pulpally and Mullenkolly.”

He further said that farmers should be made aware of the importance of rice cultivation so that the shift towards banana crops can be reversed.

The government should stop planting trees that are not suited to Wayanad’s climate, Rajendran said. “Teak, acacia and eucalyptus trees are abundant in our forests, but they are notorious for absorbing moisture from the soil,” he said.

Wide reach

The situation in Wayanad is mirrored by large parts of the state. On November 1, the state government officially declared Kerala drought-hit. The overall rainfall deficit in the state was 34%.

The drought is also making its presence felt in the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, according to Girigan. “Rain water from Wayanad reaches the Cauvery river through the Kabini River. If drought persists and Kabini dries up, it will worsen the water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.” The two states have been locked in a bitter tussle over sharing the waters of the Cauvery, which even resulted in widespread protests and bandhs in September and October.