Kerala stares at worst drought in 115 years: State may impose water rationing system

It is the worst drought to have hit the state in 115 years. If the forecast of the State Meteorological Department is read along with the reports coming from the groundwater authorities, Kerala is on the verge of a crisis of unprecedented proportions.

The Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA) has called upon the government to brace itself for the impending crisis. For the first time ever, the state might soon impose a water rationing system across households and industries as recommended by the KSDMA. Irrigation has already been stopped across three districts in the state.

While the state had received a deficient of 33.7 percent rains from the South West Monsoon (SWM) from July to September this year, the real villain had been the North West Monsoon (NWM) winds which has more or less deserted the state between October and December.

 Kerala stares at worst drought in 115 years: State may impose water rationing system

A 61 percent shortage in rainfall in these months has come as a shocker to the weathermen dashing all hopes of a revival. Though the state government had declared Kerala a drought-hit state in October itself after the initial monsoon setback, it is only now that the severity is staring the Pinarayi Vijayan administration in its face.

The State Emergency Operations Centre in Thiruvananthapuram is now a virtual war room as inter-departmental teams comprising of revenue, water, power, district administration and crisis management brainstorm their way to mitigate the looming calamity.

“This is a 115 years return interval drought. If 2012 was a 100-year one, this is worse. Such meteorological occurrence is very rare. We had anticipated this in October itself and so the government went for the declaration. But the next few months will be just terrible for the state, something we have never seen before,’’ says Shekhar L Kuriakose, member secretary, KSDMA.

From the year 1881 to 2000, there were 66 drought years in the state. But none of them has been as severe as this one. The 2012 drought was perhaps the worst one until this year. The absence of summer showers had spoilt the party then.

But what makes this year’s dry spell even worse is evident from the numbers the Met department has. While 2012 recorded a deficient of 24 percent in the SWM, this year it is a record 33.7 percent short. Also in 2012, the NWM showers compensated for the initial loss, but this time round these rains have just stayed away — a negative 61 percent.

South-West-Monsoon-Rainfall-of-2016

Rainfall-from-1-October-to-21-December-2016

Though the rains had been scarce it had fallen widespread, perhaps the only reason, experts say the state’s flora has survived these dry months. But with no more rains on the horizon, and with the Met department completely ruling out any likelihood till the anticipated summer showers in April-May, the next few months are going to be the hardest since the state’s formation.

Water bodies will dry up, vegetation and crops will wilt on a large scale, and an immense heat wave will take over, the likes of which has never been witnessed by almost the entire population in their lifetimes, predict the experts. Scientists at the Meteorological department say their last chances of a rain revival died when the North West Monsoon stayed away. They blame the cyclonic systems that developed in the Bay of Bengal including the Vardah that hit Chennai as the primary reason for killing any chances of a depression in the Arabian Sea.

“The failure of consecutive monsoon systems is something which is very rare and that is clearly going to hit us badly. While last year we got 20 percent more rains than normal from the northwest, this time it’s running on a negative scale. So you can see what the impact will be,’’ says S Sudevan, director, State Meteorological Department.

The groundwater situation in the state too is moving from bad to worse. Though Kerala is blessed with rains more than six months in a year, the state’s topography hardly helps in retaining any of the water that falls on the ground.

The hilly terrain means water flows to the Arabian Sea in quickly unless there is a prolonged interval of heavy showers which is usually brought about by the NWM that falls in November and December. With NWM keeping away this time round, the groundwater table too has started looking dismal. Reports coming from reservoirs and dams across the state too had been far from encouraging. Almost all reservoirs have been recording fall in water level continuously.

“The water level is of course decreasing in almost all the reservoirs across the state and at this rate we will have water to last for the next 100 days only in most of the places. It is a very difficult drought situation and we are taking all measures to make it easy for the people,’’ said A Shainamol, managing director, Kerala Water Authority (KWA).

At a meeting chaired by the chief minister on 28 October, the government decided to enforce stringent controls in the use of the remaining stored water in the state. The KSDMA had suggested a 26-point agenda which the state government has put in place with the motto of '3Rs' - ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ water. An order of preference has also been decided for use of water till May 2017 with drinking water at the top followed by use of water for household purpose and then for industrial use.

For the first time ever ‘water kiosks’ would be set up per grama panchayat. Tanker lorries, the usual mode of supplying drinking water will cater only to high water scarce areas. While the government has banned the use of fresh and potable water supplied by the public system for washing motor vehicles, industries that tap groundwater have been issued notices to stop productivity by 75 percent till the summer showers arrive in May. Also police protection has been given to all reservoirs to ensure pollution does not take place at any cost. Water, at the moment is most precious commodity in Kerala.

Power crisis looms large

With the water crisis all set to deepen, its impact is already showing on the power sector too. While the state needs annually 24,000 Million Units (MU) of power only 7,100 MU are generated at home while the rest is sourced from outside.

The bad news is that as the rains cease and water storage decreases the internal generation will fall to 5,200 MU which means close to 2,000 MU of power will have to be again bought from outside. This will put immense financial burden on the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), the public sector agency, which is already feeling the pinch.

At the Idukki hydroelectric project which is the largest producer of power in the state there is only enough water to generate 40 percent of its total capacity.

With all the power plants put together in the state, a stock taken on 22 December shows that only 1,988 MU of power can be generated against previous years. While in 2015 it was 2,754 MU, in 2014 it was 3,246 MU taken on the same date.

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In 2012 alone, when the state witnessed its earlier severe drought, the generation was 1,820 MU till the same period. With four months to go in this fiscal year, the state might just witness the lowest generation ever, exposing Kerala to frequent bouts of likely power cuts.

Sensing the situation, the Kerala State Electricity Regulatory Commission (KSERC), the regulatory body for tariff, has already proposed a usage based hike in electricity charges. From February to mitigate the losses the board will incur and to buy extra power units needed from outside to ensure that the state does not go in to darkness, consumers will have to pay an extra 10 to 50 paisa per unit depending on their consumption slabs.

For the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala the drought has hit it at the worst time politically. The government as a part of the state’s 60th year of formation had recently launched the ‘Haritha Keralam’ or the ‘Go Green’ project. A major part of the project involves the reclamation of ponds, streams and other water bodies and use them to revive the lost agricultural heritage of the state.

With the state hurtling towards the most severe drought in its history, this pet project which had been an election promise would have to be put on the back-burner for sometime. On the ground, the common man for the moment has not been affected except a few hyper sensitive areas in Palakad, Kannur and Thrissur districts where the water table has gone down considerably. The next few weeks are immensely crucial as the direct effects of the drought will start reflecting on the lives of the people in the state like never before.

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Updated Date: Dec 26, 2016 19:18:06 IST