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Tamil Nadu water woes: Early warning systems can help soften drought’s blow

The Tamil Nadu government has declared all of its 32 districts as drought-affected. A new satellite-based drought monitoring system could help provide early warning and mitigate drought risks

opinion Updated: Feb 08, 2017 11:00 IST
Drought,Tamil Nadu,South Asia Drought Monitoring System
A file photo of drought-prone villages on either side of the Maharashtra-Karnataka border. More than one billion people in South Asia, dependent on agriculture-related livelihoods and predominantly poor, are highly vulnerable to drought. (Vidya Subramanian/HT Photo)

Water has been in the news in Tamil Nadu, from devastating floods in 2015 to a severe drought because of weak northeast monsoons in 2016. In view of the severity of the event, the Tamil Nadu government has declared all of its 32 districts as drought-affected and reported increasing agrarian stress.

As the cycle of floods and droughts continues with adverse impacts on the economy of the affected region, much can be done to soften the blow if it is detected in advance. Innovative tools such as the South Asia Drought Monitoring System (SADMS), which takes advantage of recent advances in remote sensing, could help provide an early warning. Developed by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the SADMS is a comprehensive drought monitoring system to provide information in easy-to-understand maps, which pinpoint locations under stress and provide regional to district scale information about drought’s effect on agriculture.

Read: Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Karnataka droughts: The looming water crisis in South India  

Aiming to provide near real-time information on drought onset and progression to help decision makers respond in time, the SADMS combines satellite images of vegetation with weather data, soil moisture levels and crop yield information. It helps predict the severity of impending dry spells and how long they might last. An interactive SADMS online portal,, has also been built which would help in data sharing and viewing of all available drought and related maps for the entire region instantly.

Over one billion people in South Asia, dependent on agriculture-related livelihoods and predominantly poor, are highly vulnerable to drought. Given the advantage of satellite technology at hand, active use of early warning system such as nowcasting drought monitor can help identify slow motion of drought progress. A practical tool is required for implementing timely and appropriate responses to drought and famine, whether it is in the form of food aid or other mitigation strategies. Further, to be more accurate, early warning needs to involve forecasts based on climate projections and the area’s drought history. This would help address future drought events as well, potentially answering questions about the length and severity of a drought. An effective early warning system would also bring together technology and all interested parties in drought planning and response.

Read: In times of drought: Overuse of water behind India’s dry days

Despite progress in identifying adaptation strategies, there still exists a need for substantial investment to scale up solutions. It is equally important to safeguard and better plan limited water resources in the nation. To increase the resilience of states and countries, it is important to review institutional arrangements and the physical infrastructure of different agencies to deal with extreme incidents.

The current drought management plans at different levels also need to link up with information provided by tools such as SADMS.

With climate change and increasing incidences of extreme weather patterns, the need for early warning systems has never been greater to better prepare and equip ourselves to face the future head-on.

Dr Giriraj Amarnath is lead scientist for SADMS and sub-theme leader water-related disaster risk management at the International Water Management Institute

Nitasha Nair is senior communication officer, the International Water Management Institute

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Feb 08, 2017 08:52 IST