Concurrent floods and drought are becoming a common feature, tackling one could help mitigate the other
Extreme weather events had been long predicted to be a fallout of climate change, and we might already be experiencing them, Sunita Narain, environmentalist and director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment, warns in a column in Business Standard. She terms floods in the times of drought the “new normal” for India. Rainfall distribution within the country has traditionally been uneven, but severe droughts in certain parts of the country being coterminous with flooding in others has become more common—Narain shows that drought and floods in the same area are also increasing. As per India Meteorological Department data, while Meghalaya, Manipur, Dadra &Nagar Haveli, Goa and Karnataka, just on Sunday (August 27), saw rainfall that was over 200% of the normal, the rainfall, respectively, was -7%, -49%, 34%, -21% and -21% of the normal between June 1 and August 27. Narain mentions other examples of such extremes in her column—Chandigarh had deficient rainfall till August 21, and then, within 12 hours it had received 15% of its annual rainfall. Between June 1 and August 28, nearly 37% of the districts in India had received rainfall that was classified by the Met as a large-deficiency or deficiency, while 5% had received rainfall in “large excess”. While the Met looks at the rainfall across the country, its “normal” includes the massive floods in Bihar, Assam and Gujarat this year.
Poor water management is exacerbating the problem of erratic and extreme weather events. While India gets around 2,600 billion cubic metres (bcm) of rain in even a bad year—and just 1,110 bcm is enough meet all its needs—it has the capacity to store a mere 253 bcm. Of this, 91 large reservoirs in the country account for nearly 158 bcm. As of August 24, the live storage in these 91 reservoirs was just over 50%, lower than the past ten years’ average of 62%. Creating more reservoir capacity—and at the right places—could help cut loss of water even as it checks flooding. Similarly, dams can be a solution, too, but a 2016 Kotak Institutional Equities report found that dam construction in the country has been slowing—the number of dams built peaked in 1971-1980 (1,294), fell to 1,255 in 1981-90, 625 in 1991-2000 and since 2001, a mere 330 have been constructed.
Narain believes that “obsessive flood mitigation” can help address droughts more effectively. But, she argues, this would need a course correction in policy. While the government wants “desilt” the Brahmaputra in Assam to deepen the river-bed and control floods, Narain believes that is wasteful given silt continuously flows into rivers. She proposes constructing a network of connected water structures to drain off the excess water in case of floods and act as storehouses for droughts. While that can surely be a solution, the need is also to rectify a host of bad agri-policies. For instance, the heavy power subsidies to farmers has led to reckless pumping out of groundwater in regions that are already water-scarce for cultivation of crops that demand a lot of water. This is exacerbated by a focus of public procurement of, say, rice in Punjab and Haryana where the water-table is falling while a West Bengal and Odisha that see ample annual rainfall could do with increased public procurement.