Drought grips southern India, set to worsen in summer

Farmers in despair amid low rainfall as the authorities focus on drinking water; critics blame poor infrastructure

A lorry from Tamil Nadu was set alight in September last year by agitated activists in Karnataka state capital Bengaluru amid a dispute where Karnataka was ordered to release water to Tamil Nadu. Discord over water supplies is growing more strident i
A lorry from Tamil Nadu was set alight in September last year by agitated activists in Karnataka state capital Bengaluru amid a dispute where Karnataka was ordered to release water to Tamil Nadu. Discord over water supplies is growing more strident in the worst-affected states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Three of India's southern states are facing a severe drought that has cut water supplies to cities and farms, and conditions are set to worsen as peak summer months approach and temperatures start to soar.

In Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which have a combined population of about 145 million, monsoon rains were far below average last year, choking river flows, drying up storage tanks and causing crops to wither. Farmers are calling for urgent compensation, and many farm labourers risk losing their jobs.

Some say the crisis is partly man-made, caused by years of little or no investment in water infrastructure by federal or state governments and bickering over water resources.

India has 4 per cent of the world's fresh water but 17.5 per cent of the world's population. Its water resources are already under stress from agriculture, growing urbanisation and industrial growth.



Groundwater levels are falling because two-thirds of its irrigation needs and 80 per cent of domestic water, say estimates, are supplied by groundwater sources. Only 50 per cent of its farmland has irrigation.

"The basic issue is that drought and natural calamities occur frequently, but solutions from the government side have not been forthcoming - increasing water storage and providing irrigation," said Mr P. Chengal Reddy, who is president of the Federation of Farmers' Associations.

"This hasn't been addressed in the past 30 years."

Kerala, famed for its lush landscape and verdant farms, is parched. It is facing its worst drought in over a century as water storage levels dip below the halfway mark.

Nearly all 30 districts in Karnataka have been declared drought-hit. Reservoir levels as of March 1 were under 20 per cent. The authorities say water rationing might be needed, including in Bengaluru, the state capital and India's IT capital, to ensure that supply lasts beyond May.

Tamil Nadu was declared drought-hit on Jan 10, with the state government saying all 32 districts were facing a water crisis.

That month, farmers stood outside government offices in the state's Trichy district with dead rats in their mouths, saying they had lost their crops, had no food and were forced to eat rats.

According to local reports, 47 farmers committed suicide because of crop losses and financial troubles from the drought over a period of two months including December.

Farmer V.K.V. Ravi Chandran, who is from the Nallamangudi village in Thiruvarur in Tamil Nadu, cultivates 22ha of land and has been forced to change crops.

He said he has planted cotton and pulses, which require less water, instead of rice but, even so, he has to use water judiciously.

"I have bank loan commitments, family expenditure and day-to-day expenses. I also have to support eight farm workers. We are in distress and waiting for a government relief package," he said.

He added that the decline in soil moisture would affect farming not just for this season but also the next.

"The situation is the worst for farm labourers and small farmers," he told The Straits Times.

India is heavily dependent on annual monsoon rains, which cross the southern coastline starting in Kerala at the beginning of June and then move northwards.

The rains replenish the groundwater, fill up water storage tanks and feed rivers. Most of the country's rivers are rain-fed.

Last year, monsoon rains were poor in the three states. Agriculture is expected to be hit in an economy where more than 60 per cent of the people are employed in this sector and related services.

According to the local office of the Meteorological Department, last year's monsoon rains were deficient by over 70 per cent in Tamil Nadu. The state government is seeking 395.7 billion rupees (S$8.3 billion) from the federal government for relief, which includes compensation to farmers for lost crops.

In Kerala, the state government is in the process of setting up drinking-water kiosks, and has banned the drilling of wells.

Officials said the focus was on ensuring enough drinking water until the monsoon rains arrive in June.

"The situation is bad because rainfall was very low; because of that, surface water and groundwater storages are low, and we are in bad shape," said Dr Sekhar Lukose Kuriakose of the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority.

"We have contingency measures in place. Basically, our aim is to ensure drinking water is available to the public. That is what we are focusing on. There is no point in doing anything else as of now."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 06, 2017, with the headline Drought grips southern India, set to worsen in summer. Subscribe