drought proofing

Catch Where it Falls

By: Richard Mahapatra, The author is managing editor, Down to Earth magazine.
The answer to India’s perennial drought problem despite high rainfall lies in addressing policy failures and formulating measures not just for mitigating problems, but drought proofing the entire country.
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Unlike in the past, recent droughts faced by India did not spare urban areas. In 2016, when the drought was at its peak, metropolitan cities like Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru declared water emergency and several towns resorted to water rationing (Nair, Maramkal and Ravishankar, 2017). For a country that has over 150 years of formal drought management experiences including enduring famines, resorting to water emergencies is a brutal statement on our water governance at a time when we should have the entire wherewithal to drought-proof the country.

Drought–The Figures

Officially, drought is a permanent disaster with about 33 per cent of the country being chronically drought-affected while close to 68 per cent areas being drought-prone (Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare, 2017). Of late, some disturbing trends in India’s association with drought are emerging. N C Saxena, former secretary with the Ministry of Rural Development in conversation with the author notes, “Since 1997 there has been an estimated 57 per cent increase in the country’s drought-prone areas”. An analysis of droughts that hit the country between 1901 and 2004 showed that the frequency of multi-year droughts (of 24 months) have increased in the recent decades (Mallya, Mishra, Niyogi, Tripathi and Govindraju, 2016). Twelve multi-year droughts were recorded during 1951-2010. There were only three such droughts during 1901-1950. The increase was more pronounced over central and peninsular India.

Variability in Drought

But drought as a disaster has unique distinctions. As they say, drought is a disaster one can see coming from far. Deficit monsoon creates an environment conducive to drought, but several other factors decide its severity and the extent of its impacts. Usually, by August (two months into the monsoon season) farmers get a sense of how the monsoon would behave and the probability of a drought. This innate ability of farmers emanates from the fact that drought has been an occupational hazard since the evolution of organised farming in the subcontinent. India’s meteorological department has been recording rainfall and meticulously documenting droughts since 1877.

On the other hand India’s drought prone districts are water-rich—well endowed with rainfall. On an average, India receives 1,088 mm of rainfall a year. Areas that are chronically drought-prone receive around 750 mm of rainfall while drought-prone areas receive between 750 mm and 1,125 mm of rainfall a year (Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare, 2017). Consider Rajasthan and Kerala. Seventy-five per cent of Rajasthan is arid and semiarid, and its annual rainfall is 490 mm. During 1875-2004, Western Rajasthan faced 21 moderate droughts and 12 severe droughts; in Eastern Rajasthan, 17 moderate droughts and 5 severe droughts occured (Shewale and Kumar, 2005) . Kerala receives 2820 mm of rainfall a year. Its per capita per day water availability through rainfall is a whopping 11,500 litres—almost three times the national average. Yet, it faced historic spells of drought in recent decades (Thomas and Prasannakumar, 2016; Ameerudheen, 2017).

Drought Proofing –Infrastructure and Expenditure

Severe shortfalls affected India in the recent past. In 2015, 42 per cent of India faced a rainfall deficit as the monsoons ended with a 14 per cent deficit, the worst performance since 2009 (Bera and Mehra, 2015). But arguably, it should not have been so unbearable. Since the droughts of 1965-66, our policy has been to drought proof the country instead of just embarking on drought relief operations. It has been to prepare villages to fight drought by investing in works related to soil and moisture management. From its inception in 2006 to March 2016, the government spent over INR 3 lakh crore on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Of this, INR 1.9 lakh crore was spent on water conservation and water harvesting structures that contributed to more than 63 per cent of the total expenditure on MGNREGA works. In 2016-17 alone, 46 per cent of the expenditure made under the scheme was used for construction of water related structures and 24 per cent of the work was related to water conservation. In the past one decade, MGNREGA has helped create, on an average, 17 water bodies in every village (MGNREGA, 2016).

Going by traditional wisdom, a typical Indian village manages its water demand by using four to six types of water conservation structures. During the years spanning 2008-09 and 2016-17, which witnessed three severe drought spells, more than 10 million water related structures were built under MGNREGA (MGNREGA, 2016). These structures, according to the government, benefitted almost 1,585 million hectares (ha) and created a storage capacity of 12,150 million cubic metres (cu m). Now let us make sense of these figures. Together, these structures can hold enough water to fulfill the demand of the country’s entire rural population (40 litres per capita per day) for 10 years. In other words, with these structures in place, approximately 20 million litres of water storage capacity has been created in each of India’s 0.6 million villages.

States also erected huge water infrastructure using drought mitigation funds with the promise that drought would be history. But when one looks into the details, the prolonged droughts in Marathwada, Bundelkhand and southern Indian states suggest a flawed understanding of drought and misplaced priority. Several times governments have made a conscious decision to divert water from drought prone areas to booming urban areas or to sustain water guzzling cash crops elsewhere. And more often than not politicians have a stake in such ventures.

Resilience and Innovation

But, in these chronically drought affected areas we have hundreds of villages that remain unaffected and even enjoy prosperity as the neighbouring villages are ravaged by drought. Kadwanchi village of Marathwada, Jalna district, Maharashtra. Drought has barely bothered its residents in the past 20 years—on the contrary their incomes have increased by over 700 per cent. Kadwanchi is an example of how a well-planned government programme can help fight drought and raise farmer incomes. The sharp decline in drought vulnerability began in 1996, when the Kadwanchi watershed project was launched with a financial outlay of INR 1.2 crore. At the time, farmers would report recurrent crop failure. The figure in 2013 stood at 23 per cent (Jitendra, Venkatesh, Bahuguna and Pandey, 2016). All that the farmers did was conserve water and soil and dig farm ponds. Add to it the carefully thought-out cropping pattern that suited the rainfall regime.

Bunds and trenches were constructed, trees planted in a forestland in the village, slowing the flow of running water, increasing seepage and recharging groundwater. An impact was perceptible in the nearby areas as well. Within two years, the wells in surrounding areas started recharging and the soil gained moisture. This compelled the villagers to understand the techniques. The project helped increase the total cultivated area in the village from 1,365.95 ha in 1996 to 1,517 ha in 2002 (ibid).

Farmers started growing grapes, apart from rice and wheat, which required drip irrigation and farm ponds. These small rainwater ponds, totaling 357 in 2015, were dug by individuals with loans from banks (ibid). Training was provided by the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) of Jalna, which also oversaw the implementation of the project. KVKs were set up in the early 1970s to function as agricultural extension centres by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

Grape farming phenomenally increased the income of the farmers. According to a 2012 survey by the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA), the average annual income of farmers in the village increased from INR 40,000 in 1996 to INR 3.21 lakh in 2012—a 700 per cent rise (Indo Asian News Service, 2017). It is opined that the Kadwanchi project succeeded because community ownership helped drive it and is possibly why the structures are intact even 15 years after the programme was initiated. While many factors helped bring changes in these villages—involving voluntary organisations, committed individuals and government grants and loans—the most important common factor was the key role played by local institutions like community groups and village panchayats.

There are hundreds of such examples. Indians will be polarised on the lines of who captures rain and who does not. In the face of climate uncertainties and lingering drought, catching water where it falls will be the religion of survival. These are not sporadic cases of successful water conservation but powerful reminders of which development models one should adopt to survive climate change impacts while increasing farmers’ income.

Shifts in water management

Over the last 100 years or so, the world and India, too, witnessed two major shifts in water management. One, individuals and communities steadily gave over their role to the state even though more than 150 years ago no government provided water anywhere in the world. Second, the simple technology of harvesting and using rainwater declined and in its place exploitation of rivers and groundwater through dams and tube wells became the key source of water. As water in rivers and aquifers was only a small portion of the total rainwater, there was an inevitable and growing and, in many cases, unbearable stress on water from rivers and groundwater.

Dependence on the state also meant that costs of water supply were high; with cost recovery being poor the financial sustainability of water schemes ran aground as repairs and maintenance was abysmal. With no interest of people in carefully using and managing water, sustainability of water resources became doubtful—this is the problem India witnessed in recent times. As a result, there were problems with government drinking water supply schemes.

Consider the case of the villages that were provided with drinking water supply. During a drought, the government usually focused on the availability of drinking water and thus it was a major objective of drought proofing programmes. Despite all government efforts, the number of ‘problem villages’ did not seem to go down. Problem villages were those where drinking water supply was not available (National Rural Water Drinking Programme, Ministry of Drinking and Water and Sanitation, undated). This included the villages that were once provided drinking water facilities but over time the system became dysfunctional due to various reasons. Such villages were called ‘slip back’ ones (Ibid). As N C Saxena, puts it, “In our mathematics, 200,000 problem villages minus 200,000 problem villages is still 200,000 problem villages.” This meant that even as the government kept spending money on water supply, a significant number of habitations kept losing the supply, mostly due to drying up of water sources.

The government has made no specific effort to drought-proof rainfed areas that suffered from high rainfall variability and did precious little to sustain the integrity of India’s hydrological system. A fine example of the disintegration of the country’s hydrological system was the constant encouragement of the government to exploit groundwater, with little focus on recharge. Considering the fact that over 90 per cent of rural Indians depended on groundwater for domestic use (Ministry of Drinking Water, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, 2017), the decline posed a serious problem with the poor being the first to suffer.


The most important lesson from the successful villages in water conservation was gaining the knowledge to drought-proof the nation—a task that could easily be accomplished in less than a decade if the country puts its mind to it. In fact, there is no village in India that cannot meet its basic drinking and cooking needs through rainwater harvesting. Figures speak for themselves. Census 2011 shows that India had 0.64 million inhabited villages with a total population of 833 million (Census Commissioner of India, 2011). This means every village has an average population of 1,300. India’s average annual rainfall is about 1,088 mm. Given that an individual consumes 8 litres of water a day, an average village requires almost 3.80 million litres of water a year for drinking and cooking purposes. A fragment of 0.17 ha can catch this rainfall. If there was a drought and the rainfall amount is reduced by half, the amount of land needed would increase. The amount of land needed to meet the drinking water needs of an average village would vary from 0.10 ha in Arunachal Pradesh where villages are small and rainfall high to 8.46 ha in Delhi where villages are big and rainfall is low. And, of course, people can use the surplus harvested for irrigation. This is precisely what the ‘dream catcher’
villages did.

Does this sound like an impossible task? Is there any village that does not have this much of land? India’s total land area is over 328 million ha (Census Commissioner of India, 2011). Assuming that India’s villages could harvest surface runoff from 144 million ha, excluding the inaccessible forest areas, high mountains and other uninhabited terrains, that still gives every village access to about 224 ha or a rainfall endowment of 2.44 billion litres. The calculations show that the potential of rainwater harvesting is enormous and undeniable—enough to drought-proof the entire country. The strategy is to ensure that every village captures all the runoff and stores it in tanks or ponds or uses it to recharge groundwater. Only then can India have enough water to irrigate every single village.


Ameerudheen, TA., 2017. The drought in Kerala is so acute that farmers are sinking borewells on the river bed, Scroll, April 12.

Census Commissioner of India (Census Commissioner), 2011. Rural Urban Distribution of Population, Available at: https://bit.ly/1UlpFfV

____________, 2011. Area and Population, Available at: https://bit.ly/2zNK7YF

Indo Asian News Service, 2017. How farmers in 3 Marathwada villages created an oasis in the suicide-prone region, Hindustan Times,
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Jitendra, Venkatesh S., Bahuguna K. and Pandey K., 2016. Mr Prime Minister Good News, Down to Earth, May 15.

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Nair N., Marakamal MB., and Ravishankar S., 2017. Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Karnataka droughts: The looming water crisis in South India, Hindustan Times, February 7.

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Thomas J., and PrasannaKumar V., 2016. Temporal analysis of rainfall (1871–2012) and drought characteristics over a tropical monsoon-dominated State (Kerala) of India,  Journal of Hydrology, 534: 266-280.

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