About 42% of India’s land area is facing drought, with 6% exceptionally dry – four times the spatial extent of drought last year, according to data for the week ending March 26, 2019, from the Drought Early Warning System, or DEWS, a real-time drought monitoring platform.

Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, parts of the North East, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Telangana are the worst hit. These states are home to 500 million people, almost 40% of the country’s population.

While the central government has not declared drought anywhere so far, the governments of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha and Rajasthan have declared many of their districts as drought-hit.

“Before monsoon, which is still far away, the next two or three months are going to be difficult in many of these regions,” Vimal Mishra, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, and the developer of DEWS, told IndiaSpend.

A failed monsoon is the primary reason for the current situation. The northeast monsoon (October-December), also known as “post-monsoon rainfall” that provides 10%-20% of India’s rainfall, was deficient by 44% in 2018 from the long-term normal of 127.2 mm, as per data from the India Meteorological Department. This compounded the rainfall deficit from the southwest monsoon (June-September) that provides 80% of India’s rainfall and which fell short by 9.4% in 2018, close to the 10% deficit range when the Met department declares a drought.

India has experienced widespread drought every year since 2015 except 2017, Mishra said. As El Nino – unusual warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that makes Indian summers warmer and reduces rainfall – looms over the 2019 southwest monsoon, pre-monsoon showers (March-May) this year have been deficient as well. India received 36% less rainfall than the long-term average between March 1 and March 28, 2019, as per Met department data. The southern peninsular region recorded the lowest, a deficit of more than 60%.

Deficient rainfall has reduced water levels in reservoirs across India. The amount of water available in the country’s 91 major reservoirs has gone down by 32% over five months to March 22, 2019. For 31 reservoirs of the five southern states, this figure is 36%.

The drought could worsen the agrarian distress, exacerbate groundwater extraction, increase migration from rural to urban areas, and further inflame water conflicts between states and between farms, cities and industries.

Yet, the latest drought manual issued by the central government in 2006 makes the process of declaring drought long and difficult, experts say. As a result, drought may go officially unannounced. This means relief measures such as drinking water supply, subsidised diesel and electricity for irrigation, increased number of days of insured work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are not taken. And elections may further delay government acknowledgement and action.

This article looks at the drought and its impact in five states – Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.

Severity of drought

The parts of the country facing drought have been divided into six categories – Exceptionally Dry, Extremely Dry, Severely Dry, Moderately Dry, Abnormally Dry and No Drought, as per DEWS.

About 6% of India’s land area is currently in the Exceptionally Dry category, which is nearly four times the 1.6% area at the same time last year. The area in Extremely and Exceptionally dry categories is 11% of the country, more than double the 5% in March 2018, as per DEWS data.

DEWS provides updates based on rainfall, runoff and soil moisture – measured by standardised precipitation index, standardised runoff index, and standardised soil moisture index, respectively. Along with providing daily updates from across the country, it also provides a short-term, seven-day forecast.

How drought is declared

The Manual for Drought Management 2016 considers two factors as indicative of a drought – the extent of rainfall deviation, or depreciation, and the consequent dry spell.

To assess the extent of drought, several impact indicators are studied – agriculture, remote sensing, soil moisture, hydrology. Each impact indicator has various levels of severity.

For an area to be categorised as severely drought-hit, at least three of these four indicators must suggest drought. In case of a moderate drought, at least two (in addition to rainfall) must check out. If only one impact indicator (in addition to rainfall) checks out, the area is not considered to be drought-affected.

Once indicators show “moderate” or “severe” drought, the state government conducts a sample survey on the ground. If this report establishes a “severe” category drought, a memorandum of assistance is submitted to the National Disaster Response Fund for mitigation and relief.

States facing drought

Source: Drought Early Warning System

Area of India facing drought as on March 26

Source: Drought Early Warning System

Rainfall data from the past century indicates that India has faced a severe drought every eight or nine years.

Yet, 60% of India’s districts are not prepared for drought, according to a September 2018 paper published by the Indian Institutes of Technology in Indore and Guwahati. Only 241 (38%) of the country’s 634 districts studied were found be drought-resilient.

At least 133 of the 634 districts face drought almost every year; most of them are in Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, said the study which assessed how efficiently a district uses water when faced with hydroclimatic disturbances.

The study also found that only 10 of 30 states and Union Territories had more than 50% drought-resilient area. Tamil Nadu was the best performer, with 56.74% area, followed by Andhra Pradesh (53.43%) and Telangana (48.61%). Karnataka (17.38%) and Kerala (19.13%) were at the bottom of the list. Among the North Eastern states, Assam at 20.72% had the lowest share of resilient area.

Districts prone to drought

Source: Indian Institutes of Technology in Indore and Guwahati

Dwindling rainfall

Since the southwest monsoon of 2018, India has received less than average rainfall, with June-September rainfall being 9% deficient and post-monsoon rainfall around 44% deficient.

Between January 1 and February 15, 2019, there was no rainfall in 23% of the 660 districts surveyed, which extended to 46% below normal in March, data from the Met department shows. This is not unusual in itself, but combined with last year’s deficit it has made the situation dire, Mishra said.

Lack of rainfall is forcing regions to use up their water reservoirs. In 31 reservoirs in the southern states, water availability now stands at 25% of the total capacity, down from 61% in November 2018.

Source: Central Water Commission

Climate change effect

Climate change is amplifying the impact of drought, researchers say.

Climatic conditions that led to drought and famine in the 1870s could make a similar drought worse if the current state of global warming is taken into consideration, Deepti Singh, assistant professor at the School of the Environment at Washington State University, United States, notes in a research paper, Climate and the Global Famine of 1876-78, which looks at the Great Drought of India.

“Today, we live in a much warmer world than we did in the 1870s,” Singh told IndiaSpend. “So, a warmer climate can have adverse effects on droughts making them more extreme.”

She said the 1876-’78 and 2015-’16 droughts were triggered by extremely strong and long-lasting El Ninos. “However, droughts have continued to persist in India post-2016 despite a change from El Nino conditions, which to me is an indication of the effect of global warming,” she added.

The 2018 drought in parts of India has come coupled with flash floods in Kerala and Karnataka, while Tamil Nadu and Odisha have faced cyclones Gaja and Titli.

These extreme weather events are linked with increasing global temperatures. The earth has warmed by a degree Celsius from pre-industrial times (1800s) because of human activities, said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report released in October 2018 and revised in January 2019. If the increase in global warming is not stopped at 1.5 degrees Celsius, it would cause heavy precipitation in some parts of the world as well as frequent and intense droughts in others.

Changes in monsoon patterns due to increased temperatures would make droughts and floods more common in many parts of India. Frequent droughts are particularly likely in northwestern India, Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, according to a 2013 study by the World Bank.

The Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna river basins, which serve more than 650 million people, are likely to experience both droughts and floods more often, a 2015 study published in the journal Environmental Science said.

Farm economy to bear the brunt

With 50% of India’s population dependent on agriculture and over half its cultivable area being rainfed, the farm economy could take the hardest blow from the ongoing drought, particularly as government programmes such as farm insurance and irrigation infrastructure are floundering.

In addition to the impact on farmers, landless agricultural labourers will lose employment, said R Ramakumar, National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development chair professor at the School of Development Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “Agricultural labourers anyway get hardly 150-160 days of labour a year and this [drought] is going to make it worse.”

Although loans taken by farmers from banks are insured on payment of a small premium, entitling them to compensation in case of crop failure, farmers who take loans from informal moneylenders end up badly hit by bad harvests, said AV Manjunath, assistant professor and an expert on agricultural water management at the Institute for Social and Economic Change.

However, the central government’s scheme to insure crops against unpredictable weather, Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, has been criticised for making meagre payouts and benefiting only insurance companies, as Factchecker.in reported in February.

In addition to bad implementation, only 29% of sampled farmers were aware of the scheme, a PTI report published in August 2018 and based on a survey conducted in eight Indian states by BASIX, an institution that promotes livelihoods, said. Of these, only 12.9% could get crop insurance. The farmers cited several challenges for availing crop insurance.

Source: BASIX India

Few households involved in crop production insure their crops, the Economic Survey of 2018 found. In case of wheat and paddy – two of the most popular crops – less than 5% of agricultural households insured their crops.

The difference between the premiums received by insurance companies and the compensation paid to farmers was nearly Rs 16,000 crore in two years, The Wire reported in November 2018. In 2016-’17, around 57 million farmers joined the scheme but the following year 8.4 million of them exited it.

The impact of the drought may be less acute in areas where irrigation facilities are available, Ramakumar said. But net irrigated area is only 34.5% of the total cultivated area in India, as the Economic Survey of 2017-’18 noted.

In 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, it promised to complete 99 irrigation projects by 2019 under Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana. However, 74 of these are still without field canals, The Telegraph reported last December.

Of the 16 national water projects brought under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme, only five were underway, a 2018 Comptroller and Auditor General report said. Work on the remaining 11 is yet to begin. This delay has resulted in a cost escalation of Rs 224.54 crore for these 11 projects, while the irrigation potential achieved from the five ongoing projects is only 37%, without any drinking water or power generation arrangements.

The auditor sampled 118 major to medium irrigation projects for a decade ending 2017 and found the cost overrun for 84 of them was Rs 1,20,772 crore, enough to buy 72 Rafale fighter jets, as IndiaSpend reported in February.

Of the 201 larger irrigation projects, 70% were not completed and 55.5% of irrigation target was not achieved, another CAG report released in January 2019 noted. The irrigation potential achieved from small schemes was even lower, 22% of the target.

Big water projects do not reap any benefits, Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator at the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, told IndiaSpend. “Big government projects like irrigation projects, river linking projects, big hydro and other such mega projects are examples of schemes and programmes that are not helpful,” he said, adding that these in fact worsen groundwater depletion.

The adoption of micro irrigation techniques, on the other hand, has helped manage drought in North Karnataka, enabling agriculture in drought-prone areas such as Kolar and Chikkaballapur, Manjunath said. However, he added, these projects need to be scaled up as surface water is disappearing swiftly.

Only 7.73 million hectares of India’s estimated 69.5 million hectares of land with micro-irrigation potential have actually got it – drip Irrigation for 3.37 million hectares and sprinkler irrigation for 4.36 million hectares, IndiaSpend reported last June.

Migration induced by drought

Farmers asked about their biggest problems listed flood or drought (13%), low productivity (11%) and irrigation (9%) in a study conducted by the Centre for the study of Developing Societies. The study, released in March 2018, was based on responses from 274 villages from across 137 districts in 18 states. Although 79% of the sample population depended on agriculture as their main source of income, 62% said they would quit farming for a good job in the city.

The southern highlands between Bangalore and Chennai are going to be among the major hotspots for internal migration in the world, according to the World Bank’s 2018 report Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration.

In Bangalore, most migrants come from North Karnataka districts such as Belgaum, Dharwad, Raichur and Gulbarga, which have been experiencing droughts, said Harini Nagendra, an ecologist and professor of sustainability at Azim Premji University, who has studied the lives of migrants around Bangalore’s lakes. “In places where these migrants are from, agriculture is disappearing with the dwindling water resources,” she said.

There will be more than 143 million climate migrants across Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America by 2050, with about 40 million or 28% coming from South Asia alone, as per the World Bank report.

Water shortage in many parts of India can fuel a series of conflicts. Photo credit: Reuters

Droughts can also have consequences for electricity provision when countries rely a lot on hydropower, said Sebastien Gael Desbureaux, an economist with the World Bank who has researched water quality and availability. India gets 17% of its electricity from hydropower. “When we listen to epidemiologists, they emphasise that the lack of water favours the spread of disease as people have less water for hygiene,” he said. “Also, when water is scarce, the concentration of pollutants increases significantly, with direct health effects.”

Yet, Indian cities already are facing water shortage – almost 21 cities, including Bangalore, New Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad will run out of groundwater by 2020, affecting 100 million people, said the Composite Water Management Index published by the Niti Aayog in June 2018.

In all, 600 million Indians – or half the population – face high to extreme water stress, as per the index. Up to 75% of households do not have drinking water on-premise and by 2030, 40% of the population will have no access to drinking water.

Groundwater disappearing

Nearly 65% of irrigation supply and 85% of drinking water supply is supported by groundwater in India, said a draft report on the proceedings of the South Asia Groundwater Forum. The forum convened by the World Bank in partnership with the International Water Association and the Indian government was held from June 1 to June 3, 2016, in Jaipur, Rajasthan.

The ongoing drought could exacerbate the extraction of groundwater and further its depletion, especially in areas without piped water that rely on groundwater extraction, Nagendra said.

He illustrated with the example of Bengalore where borewells do not find water even at depths of 800 feet, and generally deeper borewells have higher chances of arsenic and fluoride contamination. Large, open wells where people drew water have completely dried up, she said, adding that open wells can be recharged with rainwater but borewells cannot.

The water shortage in many parts of India can fuel interstate and international conflicts, IndiaSpend reported in June 2018. Ongoing conflicts include:

  • Cauvery river dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
  • Krishna river dispute among Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana.
  • Narmada river dispute among Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
  • Ravi and Beas river dispute between Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan.
  • Disputes between India and China for the water distribution of 10 major rivers originating in Tibet.

Drought proofing and management

The ongoing drought situation has gone largely unnoticed nationally because of the delay in official declaration of drought by state governments. This has implications not only for the ongoing drought but also for the future, given India’s rapid groundwater depletion, decline in average rainfall and increasing dry monsoon days, as the Economic Survey of 2018 acknowledged.

States such as Karnataka have opposed the latest drought management manual of 2016, saying it makes it difficult to establish the severity of drought and will drastically reduce assistance from the Centre’s National Disaster Relief Fund.

The manual obligates states to assess numerous parameters, based on which an area can be declared drought-hit and assigned “severe”, “moderate” or “normal” category status. Gathering data and analysing it is really difficult, said Mishra of DEWS.

The parameters include rainfall, soil moisture, agriculture, hydrology, and the state of crops, which are subdivided into other parameters, making for a detailed and laborious process that state governments find difficult to complete quickly. As a result, Mishra said, “Most of the states take action and declare a drought when there are incidents of crop failure and groundwater table has depleted. This is when you start witnessing the impacts of droughts and this is too late most of the time.”

Moreover, sometimes an entire state does not face drought, but smaller regions, often constituting 10% or 20% of the state’s area, face exceptionally severe drought. In such cases, the Centre overlooks the severity of the drought in a limited area and the state gets no assistance from the National Disaster Response Fund, Mishra said, adding that the management and handling of drought needs “a paradigm shift”.

In addition to a system for early warning, at least in drought-prone states, robust indicators should be delineated along with a clear methodology. “When there is consistent monitoring for each district and some districts start showing abnormalities, you easily get the information,” he said.

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