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Parched South: Drinking water woes, failed crops force people to migrate

Deficient rainfall has led to a severe drought in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala with 54 out of 76 districts in the three states facing acute water shortage that has left farmers the worst hit.

india Updated: Nov 28, 2016 23:19 IST
Vikram Gopal
Muniyappa, 62, on his eight-acre plot, where he grows ragi and paddy in Shapur village of Kolar district, Karnataka.
Muniyappa, 62, on his eight-acre plot, where he grows ragi and paddy in Shapur village of Kolar district, Karnataka.(HT Photo)

Deficient rainfall has led to a severe drought in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala with 54 out of 76 districts in the three states facing acute water shortage that has left farmers the worst hit.

In Karnataka, where the northeast monsoon (Oct to Dec) has been 79% deficient, water in major reservoirs is down by half, drinking water is getting scarce and migration has been reported from many villages, government officials said.

Uppukunte village in Kolar district of Karnataka used to bustle with activity at this time of the year after a good harvest with preparations for sowing. Now half of the villagers have migrated to Bengaluru about 65 km away looking for work as the drought tightens its grip.

“It is the worst ever drought I have ever seen in my life,” said agri economist Prakash Kammardi, 60, who heads the Karnataka Agricultural Prices Commission.

“I have seen many droughts, but this time there is not enough water even for drinking,” said 62-year-old farmer Muniyappa, standing next to a dried pond from which he used to provide water to animals and irrigate his eight acre farm. His ragi crop has failed and he cannot even use it as fodder for the three cows he has.

“I have to now pay Rs 25,000 for procuring one tractor-load of fodder, which will last for three months,” he added.

Narayan Reddy, a member of the Uppukunte gram panchayat in Kolar district, Karnataka. (HT Photo)

Another farmer in Uppukunte, 39-year-old Suresh, said he would be lucky if he got half a quintal of ragi (finger millet) as compared to usual 15 quintal from his three-acre farmland. Srinivas, a farmer from a nearby village, opted for tomato in place of ragi thinking vegetables will fetch a stable price. “It is all gone. I will get nothing from the farm this year,” he said pointing towards his dry field.

The worst effect of drought is in regions like Kolar, where ground water is the only source for irrigation. Bore wells have gone dry. “We have reached a stage where we get water only at depths of 1,500 feet,” Srinivas said, adding that he does not have Rs 5 lakh to invest for drilling another bore well.

“The costs of sinking a bore-well have shot up because of the alarming depletion of groundwater levels.”

Water conservationist Vishwanath Srikantaiah has termed over-use of ground water as a reason for distress. He said there was no realisation of the damage caused by over exploitation of groundwater.

“It can take three to four years to recharge groundwater and undo the damage,” he said, terming the present drought as “hydrogeological” meaning deficient rains, low water availability and dryness in soil moisture.

Professor S Janakarajan, water management expert and developmental economist from Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) in Chennai, termed the distress level as “unprecedented” as both surface and ground water levels were “very low” across the region.

State-run agricultural institutions in Karnataka have reported that the sowing of winter crop is down by 50% as reservoirs are running almost dry with storage level at the Krishnaraja Sagar dam on the Cauvery river --- main source of irrigation water for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu --- standing at 16% of its capacity as on November 24.

Kammardi said farmers need to understand impact of climate change better. “We continue to think in terms of rabi and kharif crops, when in reality our weather patterns have changed drastically because of climate change. Just look rains were good across the country except parts of the south,” he said.

In Tamil Nadu, the Cauvery delta districts – Tanjavur, Trichy, Nagapatitnam, Tiruvarur and Pudukottai have been badly hit by the drought. In the western part of the state, Salem, Erode and Tiruppur are also reeling under the dry spell.

Almost all the districts in Tamil Nadu received below normal rain in southwest monsoon (June to September), which triggered severe distress in agricultural sector. Deficient northeast monsoon (Oct to Dec) in Karnataka, from where Cauvery flows has only worsened the situation.

Suresh, 39, said his three-acre plot in Uppukunte in Kolar district used to yield at least 15 quintals of ragi. He said he would be lucky if he gets even half a quintal this year. (HT Photo)

The deficient rain had also led to tension between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing Cauvery waters, settled tenuously by the intervention of the Supreme Court.

Over the last one month around ten farmers have committed suicide in Tamil Nadu, allegedly due to crop failure due to deficient rainfall. Farmers associations have been demanding that the government declare the state as drought-hit, which would make them eligible for compensation.

“There must be a concerted effort by the government to mitigate the sufferings of the farmers,” said BR Pandian, president, Tamil Nadu federation of farmers’ associations.

“The tragedy is that the government does not seem to have a plan in place to counter what is a known entity…. The state should have done enough to fill up the water bodies with rain water, but largely rain water is wasted flowing into the sea,” said Prof Janakarajan.

In Kerala, one of India’s wettest states, all 14 districts have been declared drought-hit. While there was a 34% deficit in southwest monsoon and the northeast monsoon has so far been 69% deficient.

Wayanad and Idukki districts which are known for cash crops have been worst affected with cardamom and pepper production down to 60%.

Water levels in all 44 rivers in the state have plunged alarmingly. Besides water shortage, Kerala is also staring at a power crunch given that 60% of its power is produced by hydel projects.

“We are in the midst of a severe drought. Our government is committed to preserve all water bodies and people will have to use water judiciously,” revenue minister E Chandrasekharan told HT.

The government is now planning to recharge 10,000 private temple ponds lying unused.

With inputs from K V Lakshmana in Chennai and Ramesh Babu in Thiruvananthapuram