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Drought Disaster Areas and the Need for Smart Management

Drought is a climatic condition, which is characterized by lack of precipitation and dryness. Drought prone areas are identified by a deficit of rainfall received in a  particular area. The parameters to identify drought prone areas vary depending on the natural climatic conditions. To tackle the impacts of drought disasters several governmental policies have been framed at national and state level. Effective implementation of the existing institutional framework and advancement in sustainable technology is the way forward to make a country resilient to slow disasters such as drought.

Drought can be defined as the deficiency in precipitation over an extended period, usually a season or more, resulting in a water shortage causing adverse impacts on vegetation, animals, and/or people (NOAA,  2008). It is a temporary anomaly, unlike aridity, which is a permanent climatic condition. Droughts are different from other natural disasters as they are slow-onset shocks with prolonged and potentially devastating consequences. The impacts are generally difficult to quantify as the duration may range from months to years and no single indicator can identify precisely the onset and severity of the event. Dry conditions occur due to different reasons thus making it difficult to outline a particular definition of drought. There are four approaches based on which drought has been classified to reflect different perspectives (Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, 2009).

Droughts in India

  • Meteorological drought is usually defined based on the dryness and the duration of the dry period with respect to long term average – 25 per cent or less to the long term average is normal, 26-50 per cent is moderate and more than 50 per cent is severe.
  • Agricultural drought links various characteristics of meteorological drought to agriculture impacts like precipitation shortages, soil water deficit, reduced ground water level needed for irrigation etc. It is identified by four consecutive weeks of meteorological drought with a weekly rainfall of 50 mm or less from and six such consecutive weeks for the rest of the year. Almost 80 per cent of crops in India are planted in the Kharif season.
  • Hydrological drought refers to persistently low water volumes in streams, rivers and reservoirs. Such conditions arise even in times of average (or above average) precipitation when increased usage of water diminishes the reserves. This results in significant societal impacts.

The drought-prone areas of the country are confined to the arid, semi-arid, and sub-humid regions of peninsular and western India. Around 68 per cent of the area in India is found to be prone to drought to different degrees. 35 per cent of the country’s area which receives annual rainfall between 750 mm and 1125 mm is considered drought prone while 33 per cent receiving less than 750 mm is considered chronically drought prone (Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, 2016).

Drying ponds and loss of livelihoods are significant indicators of a slow-onset drought

Impact of drought disasters

The impacts of drought are multidimensional because the adequate availability of water is an integral factor for agricultural production, and a country’s ability to produce goods and services. Some of the direct impacts of drought are reduction in agricultural production and heightened food insecurity among the poor and vulnerable sections, lack of access to clean water, depletion of water resources, damage to ecosystems and biodiversity, fire hazards etc. The indirect impacts are reduction of income for farmers, increase in food and fodder prices, defaults from agricultural loans causing debt and bondage, farmer suicides, social conflicts over minimal resources etc. Displacement of people, migration and loss of livelihood are also some of the very common indirect impacts. Thus, droughts have a cascading impact on all levels of social strata, which could be environmental, economic or social.

The 2016 Drought Management Manual and the Crisis Management Plan

Policies and frameworks undergo amendments routinely and one such is the revision Manual for Drought Management, 2009 that was amended in 2016. The revised manual states that the central and state governments shall do the monitoring of drought by following parameters which indicates the onset of drought like situation – rainfall, remote sensing based vegetative indices, crop situation indices, hydrological indices, ground truth variation which is further elaborated into 13 sub-points (Indian Drought Manual, 2016). The intensity of drought, or a drought disaster shall be declared depending on the values of three indicators. This move was met with criticism from states like Karnataka as the new norms are technically extensive and too stringent to be practical. Furthermore, the ‘moderate’ category of drought is being omitted from the manual, which means the drought prone areas would come under two categories which is either ‘normal’ or ‘severe’. Thus, states are eligible for financial assistance from the centre only in case of severe drought.

The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare (DAC&FW) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare is the apex body for formulation of policies and various institutional structures at national and state level for drought management. Drought Management Cell (DMC) of the department helps gather information from diverse sources, monitor drought conditions, issue advisories, coordinate Ministries within the Central and State Government and other concerned agencies to mitigate the effects of drought. The department also updates and reviews the Crisis Management Plan (CMP) every year.

CMP focuses on management interventions required during the time of drought disasters. It is a programme that delineates roles and responsibilities of stakeholders, including Central and State Governments and their agencies in managing the calamity. Some important features of the Management Plan includes: Crisis Management Framework (CMF) aimed at identification of fundamental crisis situations like phases of crisis, magnitude, impact, triggers and strategic response mechanism. It is also envisaged that a Crisis Management Group (CMG) for drought management would come up to manage the various phases of drought at central, state and district level. Another important feature is the creation of separate Drought Monitoring Centers (DMCs) at state level which would report to the State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMA).

Unfortunately, the problem for drought management is not the lack of policies and framework but the paucity of proper formulation and implementation. The recent episodes of drought disasters of unprecedented drought in south Indian states are an indicator of lack of efficient management strategy. In the year 2016, Tamil Nadu was monsoon deficient by close to 62 per cent, Kerala faced its worst drought in 115 years affecting more than 17,000 ha of agricultural land and Andhra Pradesh recorded rainfall deficient by 23 per cent. Thus, strengthening and enhancing the institutional mechanisms for monitoring and reporting of drought at national and state level is essential.

Along with effective policies, development in technology through enhanced scientific research could foster the already available monitoring and early warning systems of drought conditions. The use of remote sensing to provide timely meteorological data and information like soil moisture, reservoir storage etc. to farmers would help in mitigating the economic and social distress caused by drought. This could be done through media management and use of social networking system. It would also enhance the timely execution of District Agriculture Contingency Plan (DACP). Some other measures that could be taken up in grassroots level are investing in water harvesting system technologies and availing subsidised drought prone seed varieties to farmers. Moreover, building drought adaptation strategies is also inevitable as drought conditions and unpredictable shift in rainfall pattern is projected to increase due to climate change. Food security of a nation is deeply interlinked with drought as it poses as a constant threat to reduction of agricultural produce and subsequent food shortage. It affects the whole dimension of agriculture- production, availability, stability, accessibility and utilization. Thus, it is very important for an agrarian nation like India to be drought smart and drought resilient to sustain the huge population.

All of the preventive and mitigating measures for drought disasters require coordinated efforts and systematic communication between the central and state governments, scientific institutions, relevant agencies and farmers alike.

Drought Mitigation

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