Thursday, September 3, 2009

A home-grown drought-Down to Earth by Ravleen Kaur

A home-grown drought
Sep  15, 2009

Monsoon this year has failed most of India, causing drought in even well-irrigated and rainfed areas. Ravleen Kaur reports how our food preferences are making us vulnerable to drought

Hari Achal Singh has been a farmer for as long as he can remember. And that's as long as India has been independent. He recalls his childhood when his family depended on rain for irrigation. "We grew arhar (red gram), bajra (pearl millet), maize, jowar (sorghum) and a variety of wheat that did not require much water," said Singh. In the 1960s the Jawaharlal Nehru government laid a network of canals in Uttar Pradesh; irrigation became easy. "We started growing paddy then."

Five rivers and two canals crisscross Pratapgarh district, but water in them has declined over the years. Paddy is a thirsty crop, so 15 years ago Singh dug a borewell in his one-hectare field in Ashapur village of the district. He found water about eight metres below the surface.

He has deepened his borewell several times, and his crops have survived droughts in the past. He is not so sure this time. He has sown arhar and bajra but his borewell runs dry after one or two hours of pumping water. The well is 58 metres deep. "Drilling below this will be very expensive," said Singh. He blamed decreased rainfall and tree cover for the plummeting groundwater level. Pratapgarh's soil is non-porous, so water does not seep underground easily.

Unusual drought
Photograph by: Prashant Ravi
This year's drought is unusual in the sense that it has hit areas that have good irrigation facilities or receive high rainfall. India has seen 22 major droughts since 1891, mostly in dry regions like Rajasthan. But this year, flood-prone Assam was one of the first states to declare drought. High rainfall areas like Bihar and well-irrigated areas like Punjab and Haryana also suffered drought, said J S Samra, chief executive officer of the National Rainfed Area Authority under the agriculture ministry.

Drought and floods happened together. In Assam the Ranganadi and the Brahmaputra breached embankments after Arunachal Pradesh suddenly released water from reservoirs. This caused flash floods in four districts. In eastern Uttar Pradesh the Ghaghra, Sarada and Saryu rivers flooded several places in August.

Farmers are not asking for food grain like in previous droughts; they want more electricity to pump groundwater, said Samra. Droughts are not new to India but people used to grow crops sustainable in low rainfall. The cropping pattern has changed with the use of groundwater and expansion of canal networks, explained Anupam Mishra, head of the environment division of the Gandhi Peace Foundation.

Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are growing paddy, which was never the predominant crop there because these areas do not receive much rainfall. "We cannot go on extracting groundwater for long," said Vikram Ahuja, a farmer and agri-services businessman in Fazilka district of Punjab.

A satellite study by the American space agency nasa conducted between 2002 and 2008 shows groundwater reserves in northern India have gone down drastically. In northwestern India the groundwater level is estimated to be going down at a rate of four centimetres a year. Over 109 cubic km of groundwater disappeared in the region between 2002 and 2008—double the capacity of India's largest surface water reservoir, the Upper Wainganga, said the study published in Nature in August this year.

The Central Ground Water Board's estimates agree with the nasa study.

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