Over half of India faces drought-like conditions as groundwater levels deplete

More than half of India is reeling from drought-like conditions, the India Meteorological Department’s (IMD) latest data shows, with millions struggling for drinking water as lakes dry up and groundwater levels deplete amid a sluggish monsoon that, as per the agriculture ministry, has impacted the sowing of key summer crops over the past two weeks.

According to IMD, the monsoon was 39% deficient till June 22 despite marginal improvement over the last week. In its Sunday bulletin, the national weather forecaster said the monsoon advanced into parts of central Maharashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha, remaining areas of Karnataka, Telangana, Odisha, Jharkhand, Gangetic West Bengal and Bihar, most parts of Chhattisgarh, and some areas of eastern Uttar Pradesh. But the weather system’s poor intensity has stoked a severe water crisis in many states, as half the country, especially states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telengana and Andhra Pradesh, battle a drought-like situation..

Most districts in east, central and peninsular India are facing “extremely dry” conditions, as per the Standard Precipitation Index (SPI) that shows the observed rainfall amount compared with the rainfall climatology at a certain place over a long-term reference period. The index is released by IMD Pune’s Climate Application and User Interface team.

“The index reflects long-term trends and water storage conditions in different parts of the country. Scanty pre-monsoon rains and delayed monsoon onset together created conditions for drought. The outlook for next week is a little better,” said Pulak Guhathakurta, head of IMD Pune’s Climate Application and User Interface Group.

Nearly 51% of the country’s total geographical area has received deficient rainfall so far, according to IMD, delaying planting of crops, according to the agriculture ministry, and prompting rural households to conserve diminishing water sources for drinking instead of farming.

Water levels in 91 nationally monitored basins and reservoirs — critical for farming, power generation and drinking — is currently less than the corresponding period of last year in the country as a whole and is also less than the average storage of last 10 years during the corresponding period, showed Central Water Commission data till June 20.

Reservoirs in Telangana were 36% below normal; Andhra Pradesh at 83%; Karnataka at 23%; Tamil Nadu at 43% and Kerala at 38%. Normal storage means average storage of the past 10 years.

Chennai is one of several cities that is facing intense water shortage across the country. Tamil Nadu’s three reservoirs at Poondi, Cholavaram and Chembarambakkam, which supply water to the state’s capital, have depleted dramatically, forcing IT companies to redraw their operational plans and pushing eateries to stop serving lunch. Several water bodies, including the Chembarambakkam lake and the Puzhal reservoir, have shrunk due to water stress.

Some river basins are also extremely dry. The Tapi basin, for example, is 81% below the 10-year average storage; Sabarmati at 42%; Krishna at 55%; Cauvery basin at 45% and Ganga basin at 9.25% below the levels.

The Niti Aayog said last year that India was facing the worst long-term water crisis in its history as demand was outstripping supply.

“Clearly, we are looking at what could turn into a national emergency. The Manual of Drought Management (revised, 2016) clearly lays down the responsibility of the central and the state government in drought declaration, relief and mitigation,” the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee said in a statement on Sunday.

A central government official, however, said there was no cause for concern over the progress of the monsoon. “Cyclone Vayu did disrupt the normal progression of monsoon. There was delayed onset of monsoon also. But now it’s progressing normally. It has entered parts of MP and Madhya Maharashtra. A lot of moisture feedback is there which will bring rains to Delhi also in the next couple of days. There may be a brief lull in monsoon progression around June 27 but on July 1 we are expecting a low-pressure area over the Bay of Bengal, which will help monsoon progress. There is no cause for concern,” said M Rajeevan, secretary, ministry of earth sciences.

The weather department has predicted that the monsoon will progress until June 27, after which a lull could likely impact the sowing of Kharif crops.

K Sathi Devi, head of the National Weather Forecasting Centre at IMD, said: “We are expecting a lull because there is no weather system over the Bay of Bengal to take the monsoon circulation further. We will know if another low-pressure area is forming in the forecast next week.”

The monsoon is critical for agriculture, which employs nearly half of India’s population, since 60% of the country’s net sown area doesn’t have irrigation. Rural incomes are a key driver of overall demand in the economy.

Sowing of key summer crops continued to fall below normal levels in most states for the second straight week due to scanty rainfall, agriculture ministry data until June 21 showed.

Farmers have been able to sow 9.06 million hectares so far, down 12% from last year’s 10.3 million hectares sown in the corresponding period. When compared with the average area of the past five years, which is considered normal for the corresponding week ending 21 June, the sowing deficit is higher at 14%.

The area under most summer crops such as rice, pulses, millets or coarse cereals, cotton and oilseeds, which account for half of India’s annual food output, lags last year’s level.

The total area planted with these crops so far also lags the average coverage of the last five years, which points to drought-like situations in many states. Farmers are not confident of undertaking farm operations unless rains improve.

Cultivators have been able to sow rice, the summer staple, on about 0.630 million hectares compared to last year’s area of 0.924 million hectares, a shortfall of about 31%. The area under pulses, a key crop grown in states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, among other states, stands at 0.170 million hectares, which is 49% less than last year’s levels.

The sugarcane acreage, grown mostly in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, is down 2%. Acreage under oilseeds so far, which is a major contributor to farm incomes, has been 53% less than last year’s area. Cotton sowing trails by 12%, the data showed.

“If the rains improve, sowing will pick up rapidly. There is time for catch up. However, if the monsoon deficiency continues into July, then agricultural output will take a hit,” said R Mani, an agricultural economist with the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University.

First Published:
Jun 24, 2019 06:41 IST

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