The first panic wave of drought came to Kerala through the long nose of the wild jumbo. What alerted the state of the gravity of the impending drought was the exodus of elephants, monkeys and bisons from Karnataka-Kerala border to the water-rich Wayanad forests.
The first panic wave of drought came to Kerala through the long nose of the wild jumbo. What alerted the state of the gravity of the impending drought was the exodus of elephants, monkeys and bisons from Karnataka-Kerala border to the water-rich Wayanad forests, that started as early as December 2016.
“As a season of drought begins, animal migration from the north to the 344-sq-km spread of Wayanad is usual. The wildlife sanctuary, with its 211 waterfalls and 52 checkdams, is a regular summer destination. However, we were on our toes, as the animal migration started in December instead of March,” says Ajith Raman, assistant wildlife warden, Kurichiaad, Wayanad.
Soon, animal instincts were proved ominously correct. Instances of man-animal conflicts have been on the rise, as wild animals raid human settlements, in search of water, food and shelter. In Thiruvananthapuram district, a 52-year-old widow committed suicide, unable to deal with the menace of monkey herds from the forest fringes. Idukky and Wayanad report an average of three cases per week of elephant herds goring people to death.
This year, Wayanad itself has been suffering 76% monsoon deficiency. Outbreak of forest fires and dried up water-holes have led to the carcasses of dead elephants, boars and bisons. Forest officials say that usually about 800 elephants show up at the banks of river Kabani, during summer. This year, Kabani has nearly dried up and barely 120 elephants were spotted. This was unusual.
Wayanad regional agriculture research station director P Rajendran says even the valley, with relatively cool summer temperature, has been encountering a heat wave.
Academic experts too have pointed out that Kerala is heading to its worst drought in the last 115 years. According to Jobin Thomas and V Prasanna Kumar, who came out with a study titled “Temporal analysis of rainfall (1871-2012) and drought characteristics over a tropical monsoon-dominated State (Kerala) of India,” the rainfall analysis for the last 141 years to identify rain trends and drought pattern gave a scary picture. Drought pattern is related with rainfall trends as well as rainfall concentration. Irregularity in rainfall distribution at annual and seasonal scales has been declining. There has been decreasing trend in southwest monsoon, Kerala’s main water-feeding season. This has serious implications on agriculture and water resources.
Ironically, from March 1-22, there was excess rainfall. According to IMD, Kerala received 83.5mm as against 18.1mm normal rainfall during the period—excess of 362%. But this doesn’t make up for the shortfall in the two major monsoon seasons.
Kerala has been pulling its socks up to face the drought, says a note by SEOC (State Emergency Operations Centre). All 14 districts were declared “drought-affected” as early as October 31, when SEOC noticed the cues of north-east monsoon going truant. South-west monsoon had fallen short by 34% and north-east by 62%. In October-December period alone, 17,129 hectares of farmland were hit by drought conditions.
Dairy farmers have started distress sale of cows, as green fodder became unavailable and milk yield fell. “To stop the distress sale of cattle is the urgent priority. Kerala government has gone about distributing `70 per day per cow for the dairy farmer,” says animal husbandry minister K Raju.
“This can hardly save the issue of poor milk yield. With the price of fodder grass becoming dear, we have been putting the cows on a subsistence diet of banana stem and jackfruit-skin,” says Ousephachan, who runs a diary in Thiruvambadi in Thrissur.
Demonetisation played haywire with the running of farms. “Wage costs and the lack of ready currency often kept the rubber plantations untapped, during the latex season,” says Sibi Monipally, a rubber farmer.
Paddy, pepper and plantations crops are equally shaken. During October-December, 49,276 farmers succumbed to crop damage to the tune of `90.25 crore. Worst affected was Palakkad, the paddy-bowl of the state. Pepper production in the country is estimated to go down by 25%. Of this shortfall, 35% would be from Kerala. According to Thomas Jacob, chairman, Association of Planters of Kerala (APK), production fell by 30% in tea, 14% in rubber, 60% in cardamom and 40% in coffee, in this period.
TM Thomas Isaac, state finance minister, has factored in a drought-plan in State Budget 2017-18. “The strategy is to convert rivers to reservoirs through regulators and check dams as a solution for the influx of brackish water during summer. This intervention was found successful in Bharathapuzha, Periyar and Chaliyar,” he says.
Isaac, in his Budget speech, had said that to control brackish water and reduce intensity of drought, `600 crore will be invested from KIIFB (Kerala Industrial Infrastructure Fund Board) for construction of 30 regulators in suitable places along 20 rivers.
To tackle drought, `300 crore has been set aside in the Disaster Management Fund, including the unspent balance of the year and the next year’s provision of `203 crore, says Isaac. In fact, `29.5 crore has been disbursed to tackle drinking water problems.
There are curbs on digging borewells. Pepsico’s cola bottling plant and some distilleries in Palakkad have been told to tightbelt their use of water resources by 50%.
However, all studies, forebodings and plans have not been able to address the basic issue of drinking water. A study by the Directorate of Economics and Statistics on the status of potable water projects had earlier found that 57% projects are not functioning for the last five years. Of the 12,109 water schemes, only 3,212 have water treatment plant, while 8,897 lack it. It was found that 50% drinking water projects are facing shortage of sufficient water at source.
The water shortage has reached such dimensions that All Kerala Hotels and Restaurant Owners Association passed a resolution that customers will not be allowed to wash their hands before food. “An average Keralite has an obsession about food hygiene and hand hygiene. In the era of drought and water shortage, we can only allow washing hands after food consumption,” says Chellappan Mahadevan, who runs a restaurant in Kottarakkara.
Curbs on water use are likely to leave a scar on Kerala’s `30,000-crore tourism revenues too. Tourism industry is already in doldrums over SC’s order that liquor shops within 500-metre distance of state or national highways will have to relocate.
After initial political tiffs that the PM had declined to give appointment to CM Pinarayi Vijayan and his team, who sought to discuss the drought situation, the Union government has agreed to send a delegation in April to study the damages. The 10-member team will be led by Ashwani Kumar, joint secretary (Agriculture).
“In some sectors, the drought has led to losses of `5,000 crore. But in tune with the norms, Kerala can request the Centre for funds only to the tune of `992.5 crore,” says state agriculture minister VS Sunil Kumar.
The silver-lining for Kerala’s drought-hit ecology is the unsuspected increase in migratory birds from cold climes. Birdwatchers’ groups spotted at least two new species of migratory wild ducks (Comb Duck and Eurasian Wigeon) in the Polachira wetlands in Kollam. The annual water fowl census 2017 found dramatic increase in the number of birds from 1,069 to 3,117. Perhaps the arrival of new birds is a pointer to a change for the better in ground water table.
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