Heat rains down on Kerala

The high temperature this summer has sapped people’s strength, withered well-nourished crops. Electricity use has set new records almost daily, leaving the authorities worried. The impact on public health too is not minuscule. Summer rain has made a silent entry, but will it be a case of too little, too late?

Updated - April 28, 2023 08:01 am IST

Published - April 28, 2023 12:34 am IST - THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

Here flowed the Nila: This year, the Bharathapuzha had dried up months ahead of the peak summer season. A view near Ottappalam in Palakkad.

Here flowed the Nila: This year, the Bharathapuzha had dried up months ahead of the peak summer season. A view near Ottappalam in Palakkad. | Photo Credit: K.K. Mustafah

About three weeks ago, Gopakumar N., a farmer in Venkadambu, Thiruvananthapuram, sensed trouble as he was inspecting his banana crop. The plants stood on a little over one acre of leased land. In the days that followed, he could only watch as the blazing summer heat vented its wrath on the land. At last count, some 1,100 banana plants had withered, leaving Mr. Gopakumar, a farmer with 25 years of experience, staring at a loss.

‘’Another one-and-a-half months and I could have harvested the lot. But this year the summer heat has been too much to handle,’‘ he said. Mr. Gopakumar is not alone in blaming the relentless summer sun. Farmers across Kerala have reported heavy crop loss this season. In fact, the searing heat which beat down on Kerala throughout March and for the best part of April impacted all aspects of daily life; farming, electricity use and health included.

The seasonal rain has arrived at last, but the last few weeks saw temperatures rise by 3° C above the normal in places, prompting the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and the Kerala State Disaster Management Authority (KSDMA) to issue regular health advisories and alerts.

Rainfall deficiency dips a little

With summer showers becoming more widespread in recent days, rainfall deficiency in the 2023 summer has now dipped to 35%, as per an April 27 IMD update on the seasonal rainfall. But as recently as April 24, it was at 50% for Kerala as a whole. As per the latest data, five districts — Kannur, Kasaragod, Kozhikode, Malappuram and Thrissur — continue to report a ‘large deficiency,’ which in IMD parlance means shortfalls in excess of 60%. Five districts reported ‘deficient’ rainfall. Only Idukki, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Wayanad have received ‘normal’ summer season rains, which technically, is anywhere between -19% and +19%.

Anticipating a hard summer, the State Labour Department had asked employers on March 1 itself to give labourers, especially those in the construction and farm sectors, a break between 12 noon and 3 p.m. But the immediate, and headlines-grabbing impact of the harrowing heat was perhaps felt in the power sector, where State-level records on electricity consumption were being reset almost every day in mid-April.

On April 13, 2023, daily electricity usage in the State crossed 100 million units (mu), a first for the Kerala power system. Since then, consumption pipped the 100 mu-mark on six more days, touching a maximum of 102.99 mu on April 20. ‘‘Temperature and humidity are essential meteorological variables which directly affect the electricity demand,’‘ notes the report on ‘Use of weather information for secure, reliable and economic operation of Indian grid’ published by the IMD and the Power System Operation Corporation Ltd (now known as Grid Controller of India Ltd).

KSEB’s appeal to public

With speculation rife about impending power restrictions, the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) appealed to the public to cut down peak-hour use saying that the transmission and distribution networks were under stress.

For farmers in Kerala, the 2023 summer has been an especially difficult and discouraging one. Between March 1 and April 24, crop loss has been reported in 6,856.13 hectares, affecting 27,441 farmers, according to the First Information Report (FIR) on crop loss prepared by the Agriculture department. In monetary terms, damages have been estimated at ₹99.3 crore. Crop-wise, banana appears to be the biggest casualty with losses being reported in 5,618.01 hectares, affecting more than 18,000 farmers. Paddy farmers reported losses in 600 hectares.

Highest crop loss

All 14 districts have reported crop loss to some extent, but it is highest in Pathanamthitta (1,795.7 hectares), Wayanad (1,334.13 hectares) and Kollam (1,263.88 hectares). ‘’This year, we had a very cold winter in January and February in Wayanad. On its heels has come a terribly hot summer. These extreme weather fluctuations have badly affected pepper, coffee, areca nut and also coconut. Destruction of crops by wild animals has also become quite frequent in our region,’‘ said Thomas U.V., a farmer in Payyampally, Wayanad.

The IMD Meteorological Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, notes that Velanikkara (Thrissur) and Palakkad, two of the hottest places this summer, had recorded maximum temperatures 4.9° C and 3.4° C above the normal on a day in April. Kerala’s humid weather means discomfort levels go up as mercury shoots up. On several days this month, the Centre had issued ‘maximum temperature warnings’ for a clutch of districts including Palakkad, Thrissur, and Alappuzha.

Marked State-specific disasters

Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, Director General, IMD, observed that temperature levels have generally been showing an increasing trend. In fact, it is applicable to India as a whole, he pointed out. ‘‘We are monitoring temperature levels and issuing alerts on a daily, weekly and monthly basis,’‘ he said.

Given the recent summer experiences of the State, the government has adopted a number of measures over the last few years. In 2019, heat wave, sunburn and sunstroke were notified as State-specific disasters, which makes victims eligible for financial assistance. This was done on the recommendation of the KSDMA State Executive Committee. The next year, KSDMA introduced a ‘Heat Action Plan,’ a first-of-its-kind document at the time, for the State. Among other things, it requires government departments to launch summer-related arrangements in January and submit action-taken reports to the Disaster Management Department by February 28 every year.

Tough challenges ahead

The future is likely to hold tough challenges as well in the context of climate change and global warming. The State Action Plan on Climate Change 2023-2030 (SAPCC 2.0), released in December last year, offers projections under different climate scenarios using the Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Under RCP 4.5, for instance, the summer maximum could see an increase by 1 to 1.5° C and winter minimum, an increase by 1 to 2° C. Under RCP 8.5, these are, respectively, 1.5 to 2° C and 1 to 2° C.

‘’Although Kerala might not have as high a temperature as compared to the meteorological subdivisions from the northwest and central India, the occurrence of heat-related illness is increasing in some pockets,’‘ the action plan observes.

As April winds down, there are signs of wet spells around the corner for Kerala. But summer temperatures continue to remain stifling in most parts of the State. And making up for the losses is not easy.

In Kulathur, Thiruvananthapuram, G. Ravi is ruing the loss of nearly 800 banana plants over the course of the summer. Like Mr. Gopakumar of Venkadambu, this 56-year-old farmer grows the popular ‘Ethan’ variety on land taken on lease. ‘‘We hadn’t received any rain at all here, except for the infrequent drizzle, which has done more damage than good for the crop,’‘ Mr. Ravi said. ‘‘If I were to be adequately compensated, right from the cost of planting to potential yield, I should be paid ₹400 per plant,’‘ he said.

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