Flayed by fickle weather

With an almost failed southwest monsoon and erratic weather over the past few years, farmers in Kerala worry about their future, while meteorologists talk about an uncertain year ahead, and researchers wonder about the impact on both food and the land, finds Dhinesh Kallungal

Updated - September 08, 2023 02:34 am IST

Published - September 07, 2023 08:22 pm IST

Amid the challenges posed by an erratic monsoon, farming operations are under way at Arimbur in Thrissur. 

Amid the challenges posed by an erratic monsoon, farming operations are under way at Arimbur in Thrissur.  | Photo Credit: K.K. NAJEEB

“We have always had an issue with water,” mumbles K.V. Girish, as he looks up at the cloudy sky over the sprawling paddy field in front of his house. “We have faced either a drought-like situation or flood ever since the drought of 2016. It’s been more severe this time around owing to the erratic southwest monsoon,” says Girish, a paddy farmer from Karalam village in Thrissur district, Kerala. 

September is generally pleasant after a copious southwest monsoon. But Girish’s paddy field, part of the kole wetland ecosystem, looks parched at places when it should’ve remained under a thick blanket of water, post-harvesting. The field is weary and weed-infested.    

“We received some rain towards the end of August and intermittently so far in September. However, it is insufficient as the first three months of the monsoon season saw grossly inadequate rainfall. The unseasonal showers now are adding to the farmers’ confusion,” he says, as he drives his herd of cattle to the semi-parched field.   

In Kerala, the rain deficit is at 87% this August, the first time in 123 years of recorded weather history, says K. Santhosh, Director, India Meteorological Department, Thiruvananthapuram.

The farmers of the Kattoor Thekkumpadam Koottu Krishi Sangam, a paddy farmers’ collective, normally begin their farming operations by November 1 by dewatering the submerged paddy fields.

But this year, there is hardly any water in the paddy fields, and waiting for the normally scheduled beginning of the cropping season will prove costly considering the precariously low water levels in the reservoirs.

“Water brought from the Chimmony reservoir in Thrissur through feeding canals is used for irrigating the crops here after preparing the field. When there is hardly 36% water in the reservoir following a failed southwest monsoon, there is no point in waiting for the actual cropping calendar,” says Rajesh Veliyath, a farmer who is part of the collective. He herds his flock of duck to a water source nearby.    

The weed-infested paddy field under the Kattoor Thekkumpadam Koottu Krishi Sangam in the wake of scanty southwest monsoon

The weed-infested paddy field under the Kattoor Thekkumpadam Koottu Krishi Sangam in the wake of scanty southwest monsoon | Photo Credit: K.K. NAJEEB

He says there is greater risk involved in taking up farming operations now. If there is above-normal rainfall during the northeast monsoon, which normally begins by the middle of October, the paddy polders will be submerged again, damaging the seedlings. The farmers here are caught between an unfolding drought-like situation and an erratic rain pattern, he adds.

A bleak season   

The paddy farmers at the Arthat Paddy Group Farming Society near Kunnamkulam, the town bordering Thrissur-Malappuram districts in central Kerala, are staring at a bleak future after they raised paddy saplings in about 200 acres. The farming operations here are totally dependent on the southwest monsoon as they have no means to bring water from reservoirs to their fields. There is no sufficient surface water now to plough the fields when the paddy saplings are nearing replanting, says M.K. Ajithan, secretary of the society, who cultivates paddy on 32 acres.

This is an unprecedented situation, and farmers are the most vulnerable due to climate change, says Bijoy V.G., a construction worker who returned after spending 15 years in Oman and Saudi Arabia, and turned farmer. He cultivates paddy in Karalam and Kattoor villages in Thrissur.

The unseasonal rain triggered by cyclonic storm Asani in May 2022 destroyed his 10 acres of crop, inflicting a loss of around ₹8 lakh. Although the crop was insured under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) and the restructured Weather Based Crop Insurance Scheme (WBCIS), the farmers here have not received any compensation so far after the State government failed to pay its share of the premium in time, as per the insurance company.

“In 2018 and 2019, floods wrecked the farmers. This year we had to wait for five to six months to get the price of the paddy procured from farmers by the government agency Supplyco due to the poor financial situation of Kerala government. We cannot blame farmers if they choose other vocations,” says Bijoy.

The erratic monsoon has affected not just the paddy farmers. Coffee, pepper, and ginger growers are equally aggrieved. The deficient monsoon has already dealt a blow to the coffee farmers in Wayanad, a hilly district in north Kerala, says Prasanth Rajesh, a medium grower in Wayanad, who is also president of the Wayanad Coffee Growers Association.

The dearth of showers in June during the berry formation stage has already affected the size of the berry as healthy rain plays a major role in deciding the size of the berry, points out Shameer K.S., a coffee planter in Wayanad as he sweeps out withered leaves and berries from his plantation.

“It is unlikely to rain much this season. We’ll feel the impact of the erratic monsoon next year when the crops that require irrigation in February-end and March will show the dearth of water and above-normal temperatures,” says Rajesh.

The paucity of rain is also expected to give way to the emergence of a host of diseases and pests in summer, including soft rot disease in areca nut, says Shameer, who also cultivates ginger and areca nut as intercrop on his property.

Govt. agencies blamed  

But government agencies do not really understand the gravity of the situation, says K.K. Kochu Mohammed, who heads the Thrissur Kole Karshaka Sangom, a collective of farmer groups. “If the rain plays hide and seek further, the pressure on farmers will be much more and we need to devise measures in advance to mitigate the impact of frequent weather aberrations,” he adds.

Considering the abysmally low water levels in reservoirs owned by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB), it is certain that a harsh summer will soon show its impact. Despite the grim situation, the KSEB is still generating around 22-25 million units (mu) of power daily from its hydel power stations. But the reservoirs have only a cumulative 36% water and generating 10 mu of power daily is considered risky at this point in time, according to a KSEB official.

Even normal rain in the remaining northeast monsoon period will not help the State tide over the rain deficit and avoid a situation of enforcing power cuts which will stifle both farming and industrial operations. If 7,500 mu is the average hydel power generation in a year, the KSEB can generate only a maximum of 4,000 mu this year considering the inflow to the reservoirs. So, loadshedding is imminent for a few hours, unless the State purchases power by paying hefty prices per unit from outside. Given the poor financial situation of the board, paying extra to purchase power from outside is not an easy proposal, he says.

The Idukki reservoir, which accounts for the bulk of the hydel power generation in the State, received an inflow of just 62.96 mcm of water this year against the long-period average (last 42 years) of 375.27 mcm. During 2016, the year that witnessed one of the most severe droughts in recent history, the reservoir received an inflow of 159.77 mcm of water.   

Kerala receives an average of 2,018.7 mm of rainfall during the four-month southwest monsoon season and 492 mm of rainfall during the northeast monsoon. But this year, Kerala has received only 967.4 mm rainfall as of September 5, against the long-period average of 1,796.1 mm, showing a departure of 46%. 

The latest monthly review by the IMD forecasts below-normal rainfall in September, although the State is likely to receive some showers towards the beginning of the month, aided by a low pressure area over the Bay of Bengal.

According to Santhosh, Cyclone Biparjoy formed in the Arabian Sea, which eventually made landfall on the Gujarat coast in the first week of June, gathered up the moisture and depositing it there. This upset the monsoon pattern, depriving Kerala of its share of rain. As a result, the monsoon was around 60% deficient in June. In July, the State received relatively normal rainfall with just a 9% drop in average rainfall. 

However, the monsoon conditions were not strong enough in Kerala due to the moderate effect of El Niño, a phenomenon characterised by a band of warmer water spreading from west to east in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, which is likely to suppress the Indian monsoon.

In August, the effects of El Niño intensified further. Further, the country witnessed the longest ‘break in monsoon’ condition with the monsoon trough shifting to the north of its original position. This led to the ceasing of rain activity in central and southern India, resulting in the extremely low monthly rainfall.

“We, however, are optimistic in the first half of September with the strengthening of weather systems over the Bay of Bengal and favourable position of Madden–Julian Oscillation (MJO), a moving band of rain clouds that travel around the globe spanning 12,000-20,000 km across the tropical oceans,” Santhosh says.

MJO entering the Indian Ocean could trigger rainfall. “Further, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), characterised by above-normal sea surface temperature in the Arabian Sea, is likely to support the convective activity and enhance rains,” says Santhosh. However, he cannot predict what will happen in Kerala after the first half of September. 

The ecological impact of the frequent weather aberrations is more serious in Kerala than its impact on food security, says P. Indira Devi, former Director of Research, Kerala Agriculture University. For instance, the kole fields (paddy field) in central Kerala, which remains under water for about six months due to its geographical peculiarities, plays a pivotal role in recharging the groundwater in the entire region. The frequent weather aberrations coupled with unaddressed issues of farmers by successive governments may eventually force them to quit farming. She adds that a State such as Kerala, a hotspot of climate vulnerability within India, cannot afford this. 

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