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Express Study: Fourth Successive ‘Drought’ in 100 Years

Sunitha Natti reports: A New Indian Express analysis shows we are witnessing four back-to-back droughts for the first time in at least 100 years and are coursing through another as we speak. At least two of them were severe. Analysis of rainfall data across states for the past three decades threw up some startling findings.

Sunitha Natti, The New Indian Express

CHENNAI: Consecutive droughts in the last two years reduced the water levels in 91 reservoirs and aggravated the drinking water situation in India, Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti told the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.

Just two years? An Express analysis shows we are witnessing four back-to-back droughts for the first time in at least 100 years and are coursing through another as we speak. At least two of them were severe. The analysis of rainfall data across states for the past three decades threw up some startling findings. But before we delve deeper, the basics.

As per the India Meteorological Department (IMD), a normal monsoon is one in which rainfall amounting to 98-104 per cent of the Long Period Average (LPA) is received. The LPA is based on 50 years of data. Annual rainfall of 90-96 per cent of LPA is considered below normal, and anything under 90 per cent is deficient. Last year, we received 89 cm of rainfall. And at present we are in the midst of a Severe Drought Year. Or to put it in IMD’s latest jargon, a ‘large deficient year’.

If we receive below 80 cm of rain in a year, it’s a ‘drought’. But by this metric, we have had zero droughts since 1901! Not even once was rainfall below 80 cm (or 10% deficient rain than normal). In only five instances was it in double digits — 1905 (97.7 cm), 1965 (94.7 cm), 1972 (94.7 cm), 2002 (93 cm) and 2009 (96.1 cm). There’s a catch. IMD says if rainfall is 10 per cent below normal and the deficiency spans over 20-40% of the country’s area, it is an ‘All India Drought Year’. If the deficiency occurs over more than 40 per cent of the area, it’s an ‘All India Severe Drought Year’.

By that reckoning, we have had four severe droughts, 1965, 1987, 2002 and 2009, when over 10-15 states took a hit. Although it hasn’t been declared yet, going by the information in the Supreme Court affidavit, 2015 will fall under the severe category, with about 330 million affected and lower-than-normal rainfall spanning over 50 per cent of the land mass. In contrast, the IMD’s climatology report for 2015 only notes that there was an annual rainfall deficiency (read not drought) due to significant below average rains during the southwest monsoon season.

Analysing IMD’s rainfall data, we found that between 2010 and 2014, 7-10 states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Jharkhand and Bihar – had a rainfall deficit of at least 5-10% every year.

In 2014, 10 states with an aggregate land mass of 1,597,926 sq km, or 54 per cent of the country’s area, had a drought.  Similarly, between 2010 and 2013, about 26-52 per cent of the country’s land mass reeled under rainfall shortage, but those years weren’t given the certification of All India Drought Year or All-India Severe Drought Year (see table).

One plausible explanation for this is that IMD measures drought in meteorological, hydrological and agricultural terms. So a state may have a meteorological drought but not an agricultural one if it didn’t affect more than 20 per cent of the land.

But this logic is not convincing. In 2014-15, production of cereals, pulses and foodgrain fell by 4.2 per cent, 11 per cent and 5 per cent, respectively. Similarly, area and yield per hectare for all major commercial crops like groundnut and oilseeds plunged 10 per cent.  The agriculture sector, for the first time in three years, witnessed negative growth of 0.2 per cent. It had grown 4.2 per cent the year before.

Of the 15 states studied, Punjab has been receiving lower than normal rainfall since 2009.  This is the seventh successive drought year in Punjab; for Haryana it’s the fifth; and for Jharkhand and Bihar the fourth. States like Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have seen at least three severe droughts and below-normal monsoons since 2009.

Get Ready For More Droughts’
Outlook Magazine
Roxy Mathew Koll is a Climate Scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology (IITM), and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Pune. He previously worked as a Research Scientist at the Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Climate Change in Italy and as Visiting Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Maryland. He is currently leading research on ‘Indian Ocean warming’ and its impact on the Monsoon and the marine ecosystem. He discusses some of his research findings with Prachi Pinglay Plumber.

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