NEWS
10/07/2019 6:26 PM IST | Updated 10/07/2019 6:26 PM IST

Why An Elusive Monsoon Is Making Kerala Anxious

Several parts of Kerala are hard pressed for water as southwest monsoons have arrived a week late in the state and has failed to gain momentum.

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The southwest monsoon arrived in Kerala on June 8, a week later than its normal onset date of June 1. Though most parts of central Kerala witnessed moderate rainfalls in the subsequent one week, the water woes in Neelamperoor village panchayat, located between Kottayam and Alapuzha towns, continue unabated. Each of the 3,806 families in the panchayat is spending on an average Rs. 2,400 every month for buying drinking water.

The non-availability of potable water in any of the wells or ponds in the locality and the alarming depletion in groundwater level are preventing the local body from thinking of any new drinking water schemes, and hence people here have no option but to wait for the water-carrying trucks being operated by private firms.

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“A single person requires 1,000 litres of water each month and the private supplier charges Rs. 600 for it. A four-member family will have to spend Rs. 2,400 every month on drinking water alone. As per that ratio, our panchayat is spending a total of Rs 91,34,400 a month only on drinking water. The expenses would increase further if families have more than four members,” points out panchayat president Rajani Babu. For all other domestic purposes, Neelamperoor villagers have to depend on the highly contaminated water available in the nearby backwater regions.

Though meteorological department and experts are of the opinion that the southwest monsoon would gain momentum by July end and the beginning of August, the poor rains during June and the first week of July have created widespread anxiety in Kerala. Rivers are drying up and dams remain empty.

Seventy percent of the local bodies in Kerala are still using water-laden trucks to meet the urgent needs of the worried locals. Hydroelectricity production is now minimal and the state is now purchasing power from outside at a higher tariff. Farmers are extremely disturbed as the severe water shortage has almost completely crippled their agricultural planning, especially in the case of rice, vegetables and cash crops.

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A view of the Thekkady lake in Kerala. 

Met department optimistic

“There was rain deficit of around 35 percent in June and the situation is not different across the state even now. It’s true that monsoon is advancing now at a snail’s pace. It was a period of weak El Nino. Now the situation is improving. The low-pressure area that has formed over northeast Bay of Bengal is turning in our favour,” said K. Santhosh, director and head of Thiruvananthapuram centre of India Meteorological Department.

Exactly a year ago, Kerala encountered large scale deluge and devastation owing to incessant rains. Now, even those regions that had been submerged under the floods last year are witnessing a drought-like situation. Dark clouds are not in sight anywhere and lightning flashes and rainbows that were part and parcel of the monsoon season are slowly slipping into the realm of folklore. Monsoon seems to be playing tricks with Kerala.

In Kerala’s traditional rice-bowls such as Palakkad, Kuttanad and Wayanad, farmers are staring at the sky, high anxiety writ large on their faces.

Southwest monsoon normally makes landfall in Kerala on June 1 and there is copious rain throughout the state for the next one month. This time, the rains arrived late, and now even a month after its onset, there have been no massive rains, and the temperature hovers around 33 degree Celsius.

In Kerala’s traditional rice-bowls such as Palakkad, Kuttanad and Wayanad, farmers are staring at the sky, high anxiety writ large on their faces. As per the data available with the India Meteorological Department, Kerala which normally receives 54.99 cm of rain in June has received only 35.5 cm of rain to date, that is a deficit of 35 percent. In Wayanad district, the deficit has been 55 percent, and in Idukki, 48 percent.

Among the districts, only Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode have received relatively better rainfall this time. The shortage of rainfall has created an unprecedented water crisis in the whole state. The condition is extremely severe in Kasargod district.

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Power generation hit badly

Other than the drinking water sector, what has been affected most in the state is the power generation process, which remains highly dependent on hydroelectric energy. According to the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), the reservoirs across the state have only 11 percent of water remaining. And almost all the dams of the KSEB and the Irrigation Department have touched dead-storage levels.

The gross storage available in the KSEB dams can generate a maximum of 451.7 million units of power, according to Kerala Power Minister M. Mani. With the daily power consumption standing at 75 million units in the state, Kerala is now buying 63 million units at a higher tariff from the national power grid.

Meteorologists claim that cyclone storm Vayu, which developed in the Arabian Sea on June 10 disturbed the pattern of the normal rainfall and changed the direction of the wind in a way that pulled the monsoon clouds towards the Oman coast.

“We have hope in the cyclonic storm developing in the Bay of Bengal. In fact, the depressions and cyclones in the Bay of Bengal strengthen the monsoon rainfall in Kerala region. In all probability, there would be no reduction in the quantum of rainfall this year. The deficiency in June would be compensated for in the next three months,” said meteorologist S Sudevan.

“Gone are the days when Kerala was adjudged as one of the rainiest pockets in India.

The farming community is not so optimistic, however. Plantation crops in Kerala such as coffee, tea, rubber, cardamom and pepper will witness a lower output this year because of the below-average rainfall in June. Coffee farmers in Wayanad and tea estates in Idukki have been badly affected. The lack of rain has started affecting the setting of coffee beans, and the dearth of sufficient moisture is preventing planters from applying fertilisers.

The scanty rainfall is also adversely affecting the rubber plantations in Kerala, the largest producer of the commodity in the entire country. The farmers now expect a decline in the yield during the peak tapping season starting September. Cardamom harvest is likely to be delayed by more than a month because of the deficit rains.

According to Pratheesh Mamman, a researcher in the Institute for Climate Change Studies in Kottayam, many elements including global warming cause climate change, resulting in changes in the rain pattern. “El Nino, associated with the heating of the Pacific waters, has a huge impact on the monsoon in the state. It dampens the atmospheric conditions that are needed for moist monsoon winds,” he clarified.

Gopakumar Cholayil, a faculty member of the Kerala Agricultural University who did research on the changing rain patterns of Kerala, said that the quantity of monsoon rains in Kerala has been decreasing steadily from 1980. “Gone are the days when Kerala was adjudged as one of the rainiest pockets in India. Also, the concept about June being the rainiest month in the state with 650 mm of rain is also changing,” he said.

According to him, the state has witnessed 30 percent decrease in rain availability since 1980. “Earlier, Kerala received modest rains during ten months of a year. Now, during five months there aren’t even minor showers. Though the state witnessed a deluge last August, there was no rain reported during September.”

Cholayil added that the impact of this shortage on the residents of Kerala would be severe as a single person in the state uses an average of 400 litres of water daily while the global average is 135 litres.

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Neyyar reservoir in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. 

Water scarcity likely to persist

Meanwhile, VP Dinesan, senior scientist at the Kozhikode-based Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM), warned that even if the monsoon picked up momentum by July end there would be extreme water scarcity in the coming months in the state.

“Whatever be the availability of rain, water is not getting stored in the earth. Last year’s flood washed away all the sand-bed sediments in the rivers and filled them with alluvium sediment. This situation will prevent the rainwater from percolating into the earth. Now the rainwater that falls on Kerala soil reaches the sea in the next 22 hours,” he pointed out.

Groundwater distribution has also gone down considerably in the state, he noted. In the coastal plain, it is now standing below one meter; in the midlands areas comprising rolling hills, the groundwater level has gone down to two meters; in the highlands or the mountainous terrains, it is now below three meters.

According to green activist advocate Harish Vasudevan, many factors have contributed to the present situation in which rainwater is flowing easily into the sea without percolating into the soil.

According to green activist advocate Harish Vasudevan, many factors have contributed to the present situation in which rainwater is flowing easily into the sea without percolating into the soil.  “The forest cover in the state has decreased from 50 percent to 27 percent over the years.  Rice fields which traditionally stored rainwater have decreased from 800,000 hectares to 250,000 hectares owing to the large scale commercially motivated reclamations processes carried out in the state. Soil extraction from the hills is another contributing factor. In addition to all these, the saline water invasion of our rivers has now crossed the 28-km inward mark,” he pointed out.

On its part, the CWRDM has advised the state government to desilt and protect the 45,000 ponds in the state as an immediate measure. Conservation of these ponds would help recharge wells. The agency has also found that the quantity of water remaining in dams in Kerala is less than the water in Tamil Nadu dams.

According to Cholayil, Kerala’s agriculture calendar must be revamped urgently in a way that takes into account the changing patterns of the rains. The planting season which began hitherto in June needs to be delayed to July end, he said.

This was first published in Mongabay-India.