The Indian Meteorological Department has revised its monsoon rains forecast from “below normal” to “deficient” after reports of a strengthening El Niño pattern, signifying a second consecutive drought year for the country.
India’s current heatwave – which has claimed as many as 2,500 lives – is the second deadliest that the country has experienced and the fifth deadliest in its history. Last year, poor monsoon rains led to drought in parts of India. The region received only 88 per cent of the long-period average (LPA) of rainfall as a result of an evolving El Niño pattern; agricultural yields for that period were reduced as a result. The forecast of a another year of drought conditions is expected to have a severe impact on farmers, particularly in India’s breadbasket regions, who are still recovering from last year’s drought and recent unseasonal rains. The south-west monsoon hit Kerala on 4 June – four days late – but it could take several weeks before farmers find relief, as heatwave conditions still prevail across most of the country.
India’s Minister of Science and Technology, Harsh Vardhan, announced last week that the Metrological Department (IMD) had lowered its monsoon rains forecast from 93 per cent to 88 per cent of the LPA this year. The monthly and regional distribution of rainfall during the four-month monsoon season (June-September) is likely to be well below average in every region, with the north-west of India – which includes the “breadbasket states” – likely to receive less than 85 per cent of its normal rainfall.
A second drought year in India will have a significant impact on the already water scarce country. According to a report released earlier this year, 54 per cent of India is facing high to extremely high water stress, with almost 600 million people at a high risk of surface water supply disruptions. According to the same report, 54 per cent of India’s groundwater wells are experiencing reduced output and only 59 of the 632 districts examined had water that was safe to drink. Poor monsoon rains will add to this burden, stretching the capacity of ill-prepared local and national government support systems.
Lower rain forecasts will have a heavy impact on India’s farming sector, which uses 90 per cent of available water. The production of grains, cotton and oilseeds was hampered by last year’s poor monsoon. The unseasonal rains earlier this year further affected agricultural production, with an adverse impact on over 18.9 million hectares of crops and leading to a five per cent reduction in food grains against 2014 yields.
Over 65 per cent of agricultural production in India is dependent on rainfall, so another drought year will pose significant risks to monsoon-dependant crops. The heatwave is expected to delay the planting of the main rice crop, while deficient rainfall is expected to affect the output for paddy farmers in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and eastern Uttar Pradesh, who contribute 56 million tonnes of the 104.5 million tonnes of rice produced in the country.
Slow and inefficient damage assessment processes are a major factor contributing to the government’s failure to deliver much-needed relief to farmers. Crop damage during the unseasonal rains in February, March and April is still being assessed. Many farmers have been unable to claim compensation for crop losses, as assessments must show that at least 33 per cent of the crop area is damaged before farmers are eligible for compensation. Calculation methods may also overlook the needs of poor farmers as the compensation is calculated based on community development blocks. These blocks may comprise up to 100 villages. This means that, where poor and rich farmers reside in the same block, the poor farmers – who may have lost their entire crop – could have their compensation reduced because rich farmers may still have been able to produce higher yields due to their ability to afford pesticides and fertilisers.
Delayed responses and untargeted relief efforts suggest that the government is ill-prepared for a worsening drought. The Indian Government needs to increase its capacity to respond to drought-affected regions by ensuring that adequate resources are available for a more timely and effective response. This should include the establishment of effective procedures to assess crop damage, which will ensure that relief can be delivered more rapidly. Crop damage assessment processes need to be changed from the block level to individual farmers to make sure that poor farmers with fewer safety nets can be prioritised in the compensation process. In the long term, water and food security challenges can be addressed though better water management strategies, particularly in the treatment of contaminated water supplies.