South India's Drought Part 1: Five states face severe water crisis made worse by the onset of summer

South India is parched — Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are already reeling under severe drought, and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are on the brink — now the blistering heat waves will put more pressure on the existing water resources.

Imran Qureshi April 20, 2017 15:44:05 IST
South India's Drought Part 1: Five states face severe water crisis made worse by the onset of summer

Editor's note: This is the introductory article to a nine-part series of ground reports on the ongoing water crisis in south India. Firstpost will cover various aspects of the near-calamitous situation in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, over the next eight days. 

South India is parched — Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are already reeling under severe drought, and Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are on the brink — now the blistering heat waves will probably put more pressure on the existing water resources.

While Kerala and Tamil Nadu are facing an unprecedented drought – the worst ever in over a century, according to experts; Karnataka’s northern districts are without water for the third consecutive year.

In October 2016, Andhra Pradesh announced that 245 of its mandals were drought-hit due to a deficiency of 4 percent rainfall. Telangana, a perennially water-starved state, is engaged in water wars with its Telugu-speaking neighbour over allocations of Krishna and Godavari river water.

Tamil Nadu

The situation is grim in the southern-most part of the country. The North East monsoon, which is the main source of water for the state, was deficient by 62 percent last year. The year 2016 was uneventful despite the failed monsoon as the December 2015 floods filled up lakes and water bodies and recharged groundwater, bringing the water table up by 2-3 metres.

South Indias Drought Part 1 Five states face severe water crisis made worse by the onset of summer

Tamil Nadu farmers during their agitation demanding loan waiver and compensation for crop failure, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI

But summer has set in full force. Chennai has already experienced three days of heat wave, with temperatures crossing 40 degrees Celsius, a deviance of 3 degrees from the average at this time of the year. Experts warn that the state will reel under severe heat in the coming months, with temperatures expected to cross 50 degrees Celsius in an abnormally hot summer. Drought is adding to the state’s woes.

Authorities are at a loss as to what to do for water, considering that the neighbouring states are also reeling under drought. The state’s battle over Cauvery water has not come to much – there is hardly any water in the Cauvery for Karnataka to release. Andhra Pradesh yielded to the pleas of the then chief minister O Panneerselvam in February this year, but the 2 tmc-feet of water released was barely enough, even for Chennai. Water levels in the reservoirs of the state are at 5 percent of their total capacity, with the key reservoirs feeding Chennai – Chembarambakkam and Cholavaram – already at dead storage.

The state is now tapping water filled in mines and quarries, water released from Neyveli’s thermal power plant and desalination plants to somehow meet the needs of the thirsty population. Groundwater is being drawn at an alarming rate by the civic bodies, citizens and illegal water tankers alike. As a result, groundwater levels have fallen drastically – between 5 and 10 feet – across the state. Water supply has been rationed.

“It is a drought we have not seen in 110 years. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and it is due to global climate change. We may see a repeat of 2015 (floods) next year or the rains may fail again like they did in 2016. We cannot figure the weather out. But we need to ensure that we are prepared,” said S Thirunavukkarasu, retired official of the Tamil Nadu Public Works Department which is in-charge of maintaining most of the reservoirs, lakes and rivers in the state.


The rain gods have spurned God’s Own Country. The worst drought in the state in 115 years has made the residents very anxious. With the South West monsoon being deficient by 33.7 percent (July to September) and the North East monsoon short by 61 percent (October to December), the state is floundering.

Drought has meant that the power supply too has been hit as Kerala largely depends on hydroelectric power. The Idukki hydroelectric project, which is the largest producer of power in the state, has only enough water to generate 40 percent of its total capacity. While the state annually needs 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, internal generation will fall to 5,200 MU. This means that close to 2,000 MU of power will have to be again bought from outside. With all the power plants put together in the state, a stock taken on 22 December, 2016, shows that only 1,988 MU of power can be generated against the previous years. While in 2015, it was 2,754 MU; in 2014, it was 3,246 MU taken on the same date.

South Indias Drought Part 1 Five states face severe water crisis made worse by the onset of summer

Representational image of the Cauvery River. Karnataka might face severe water shortage if the South West monsoon fails for the fourth consecutive year. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia.


This year is bound to be tougher because even the Cauvery basin districts in Karnataka have gone so dry that the state might face a gigantic crisis if the South West monsoon fails for the fourth consecutive year, beginning June. The shortage of water and unemployment have already made hundreds, if not thousands, of villagers move to the cities and towns of not only Karnataka but neighbouring states as well. The reservoirs fed by the Cauvery river are at dead storage as cities like Bengaluru thirst for water.

This is because of the heat wave in north Karnataka and the third consecutive year of drought. A rainfall deficit of 35 percent in the Malnad region, the catchment area for many perennial rivers emerging from the Western Ghats, has meant that the river water too has failed the state.

What is concerning experts is the lack of vision and long-term policy and planning by state governments across south India to tackle drought. “Nobody cares about migration,” said Professor Narendra Pani of the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru. “The government is looking for a quick fix. There is a need to set up markets for farmers and we need to have a system of aggregation. You need to bring people together and, perhaps, set up sheds for sericulture to control quality. Unfortunately, we don't even think on the lines that China has succeeded in implementing.”

Andhra Pradesh and Telangana

Andhra Pradesh’s groundwater table has dropped to 14.34 metres, following a rainfall deficit of 23 percent last year. Ideal groundwater level should be between 3 and 8 metres, as per government recommendations and the state has begun an ambitious groundwater recharging programme called 'Neeti Samrakshana Udyamam'.

Chronically drought-prone areas like the Rayalaseema districts of Anantapur and Kadapa have become more arid, with crops failing. Andhra has got a drought relief package of Rs 2,816 crores from the Centre.

While Telangana received slightly higher rainfall than the average in 2016, the state is engaged in water wars with Andhra for river water from the Krishna and the Godavari. For now, the water situation is under control in Telangana. But with heat waves predicted in both the Telugu-speaking states, the respective governments are gearing up for the summer months.

Experts are criticising the knee jerk reactions of state governments to drought, rather than planned conservation. Chennai-based economist, Venkatesh Athreya said, “You need to promote sustainable water conservation and newer methods of irrigation. Yes, there has been a collective action in desilting tanks etc. Certainly inspiring but it doesn't absolve the state of its responsibility. It is the scale that matters which only the state can do it.”

Drought In South India

Social biases are adding to the trauma of scarcity. Take for instance the illiterate and the socially-backward sections in Tamil Nadu's Cauvery Delta region. The Dalit woman is left empty-handed because the landed gentry understand the problems between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka caused by the dispute over sharing of Cauvery waters.

Not that life in the cities is any better. The job-hunter from the village expects to get the most basic requirement — water. But it has become a traumatic experience in his effort to survive the summer. Many in Chennai are forced to pay 10 times the normal amount for a pot of water.

Scarcity of water has reached such levels that even Nandan Nilekani, perhaps, did not realise that the Unique Identity (UID) card called Aadhaar would be used as a tool to ration water. Based on the Aadhaar card, people are given water cards to become eligible for a pot of water in one district of Andhra Pradesh. But, then there is a price to pay after acquiring that water card. The citizen has to pay Rs 5 per pot of water from private water suppliers.

But, the story about scarcity of water or drought in some places is not all about at what price water is sold. It is about the impact that this precious commodity has on society and on all aspects of development for the future. The effort to deal with the problems of climate change has been such that there has been no concrete measures taken by any of the state governments to prepare for the summer months which have been becoming traumatic with each passing year.

For instance, a state like Tamil Nadu has not realised that it has the longest coastline among the Indian states and the consequential adverse situations. Such situations in the future, experts believe, could be even worse than the flood havoc it faced in December 2015. It appears the state is clueless about how to safeguard itself in the future from the ubiquitous climate change. The state has not understood that the changes in the seas impact the inland.

But, it must be said that not all governments are callous about the future. Kerala has adopted a mission mode approach to reclaim dried up lakes, canals, ponds and other water bodies. It is a start but, at least, one state has begun to look at something in a mission mode.

Firstpost brings to you a series on the impact of the harshness of the summer from each of the south Indian states which, incidentally, is the most developed zone of India, along with western India, with a hope that the powers-that-be, not only the government but the powerful civil society as well, will begin to look at initiating measures to provide mission-mode programmes to reduce the agony of summer.

Part 2: Chennai slum dwellers forced to beg for water, authorities remain helpless
Part 3: Parched lands in Nagapattinam lead to distress migration
Part 4: Water crisis in Tamil Nadu is a manifestation of climate change, say experts
Part 5: As Karnataka reels under severe water crisis, residents brace unofficial rationing

Updated Date:

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