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No two droughts are alike

Author: Richard Mahapatra
Posted on: 17 Aug, 2011
Why government’s 2009 drought management plan may not work this year

Photo: Ruhani Kaur
Half way into the season, the monsoon plays truant. The India Meteorological Department resets its forecast. Low rainfall in the second half of the monsoon (August- September) means a rain deficit of six to 24 per cent. This is bad news for close to 121 million people who are yet to recover from the severe drought of 2009, triggered by a 22 per cent monsoon deficit.

Agriculture ministry officials in Delhi are confident of “hassle-free” drought management. Their confidence arises from the fairly well-managed drought of 2009. The strategy is simple: clone the drought response template of 2009. The drought of 2009 affected more than half of India’s districts in 14 states, impacting 121 million people.

But this strategy marks a fundamental mistake policymakers commit: misunderstanding the route that a deficit monsoon takes to become a severe drought. A drought is better understood—thus better managed—while it unfolds.

So, can we equate the 2009 and 2011 droughts in our response? Or for that matter, can two droughts ever be tackled in the same manner? In popular perception, a deficit monsoon leads to a drought straightaway. But in reality there is a complex interplay of rainfall, its time and spread, and government response. Each drought has distinct features. The spread and intensity of a drought entirely depends on when the monsoon fails to pour. Subsequent government responses to manage the situation decide how severe its impact would be on people.

It will be prudent to look at the 2009 and 2011 situations to understand the fundamental differences between the two. In 2009, the drought was caused by the delay in monsoon in June which delayed sowing. Once it revived in July, agricultural activities resumed. The winter monsoon (October-December) was normal, thus helping retain soil moistures. Many farmers who started late could easily extend their season up to November. Government’s response in terms of alternative short-term crops and diesel subsidies helped people tide over the crisis.

In case of the current monsoon, the deficit is being experienced in July-August. Eight states reported 30-50 per cent rain deficit till August 1. July is the crucial month for sowing and retaining already sown crops. Monsoon failures in July impacts both crops already sown in a few states and delays sowing in many places. With just two months of monsoon left, uncertainty grips farmers. India’s severest droughts in terms of spread and crop loss—1979, 1987 and 2002—have been triggered by monsoon failures in July. Unlike the 2009 drought, these three droughts are still remembered for causing extreme human misery. They decisively changed government’s drought management programmes. But one critical aspect was still not recognised: the link between the time of monsoon failure and the severity of its impacts.

The other worrying aspect is that this year’s forecast of a deficit monsoon follows close on the heels of the severe drought of 2009. The worst case scenario projected for the current monsoon is a rain deficit two per cent more than the 22 per cent deficit of 2009. So the inevitable question is: should we just continue the 2009 programmes to fight another possible drought? Chances are high that government will do just that post declaration of drought. That would be a mistake.

Impacts of drought can stay long. A study by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines shows that drought is a major factor for keeping people below the poverty line forever. In a severe drought year, the research found, farmers in Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh suffer agricultural losses close to US $132 million. “The effects of drought often trap them in perpetual poverty,” the study observed. The survey found that almost 13 million people in these three states who sit perilously just above the poverty line fall below it due to drought-induced income loss. The same districts that suffered the drought of 2009 are again facing drought-like conditions due to deficit rainfall this year. In 2010, many of them also suffered delayed monsoon, bringing down yields. So people in these districts first need years of consistent livelihood supports post-drought to enable them to return to their normal economic state.

It is clear that government has to adopt two approaches. First, define drought management plan based on time of monsoon failure. Second, mount an overarching livelihood programme that continues support to drought-prone people. India has elaborate drought mitigation programmes. Now there is a crisis in the management plan as well. These two aspects need to be tuned to the least understood aspects of drought.

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