Tackling drought without data

The lack of data, compounded by a dearth of political and bureaucratic will to invest in data collection, has resulted in the government resorting to knee-jerk measures to tackle drought, rather than devising a long-term strategy.

Updated - April 30, 2017 12:39 pm IST

Published - April 30, 2017 09:22 am IST

S. Thirunavukkarasu, 70, is clad in a white dhoti and cotton shirt that quirkily set off his white hair and the vibhuti (holy ash) splashed across his forehead. He is full of tales — of lament and longing.

He longs for a library that has archived data on every single hydrological aspect of Tamil Nadu’s water bodies. “Let me tell you an instance of what happened when I was working in the Coimbatore area,” he begins. The retired Assistant Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department of Tamil Nadu was tasked with working on the upper Noyyal river basin. “I looked for months together for the hydrology data. Nothing was available, even with the department. How could that be? But I finally found it after many months of searching. Do you know where?” he asks, as a smile cuts across his face.

It turns out the data was kept at the derelict library of the Institute of Hydraulics and Hydrology, situated in Poondi near Chennai — almost 500 kilometres away from the Noyyal river. “The British had kept exhaustive records of the hydraulics of the upper Noyyal basin. The records were created in the 1880s and the pages were yellowed and falling apart. I thought to myself: How do I copy this? Very gently, I turned the pages with great care and took photos on my phone of each page and WhatsApped it to others in my team. We printed them all out and circulated them to the department. That is the state of data collection and archival in Tamil Nadu,” he rues.

Mr. Thirunavukkarasu adds that he has been hunting for the hydraulics data of the lower Noyyal basin. “It will definitely be there somewhere, meticulously recorded by the British,” he says.

No data, no action?

As the floodwaters of December 2015 receded from Chennai and its surrounding areas, environmentalists were a worried lot — but not about reconstruction. “Historic weather patterns show that whenever there is a flood, two years of drought will follow,” says Jayshree Vencatesan, trustee of Care Earth, a non-profit organisation working in the field of conservation. “We should have been prepared for drought this year. But without credible data, preparation or mitigation is almost impossible,” she adds.

This is no ordinary drought. Officials are calling this the worst drought in over a century. Heat waves have already begun in Chennai.

Even before the 2015 floods arrived, the State government submitted a report — the State Action Plan on Climate Change — as part of a National Action Plan on Climate Change, under the Climate Change Adaptation in Rural Areas of India (CCA-RAI), a project funded by the German government through GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammernarbeit), between 2009 and 2014.

Tamil Nadu was one of the last among 18 States to deliver its action plan, which, according to environmentalists, is only interesting in terms of its breathtaking lack of original data, its reliance on old research reports, its use of figures from broad national studies rather than State-specific ones and its failure to conduct specific risk vulnerability studies at the micro-level.

“It is just for namesake that every State is doing this plan,” says Sudarshan Rodriguez, Senior Programme Coordinator with the Tata Institute for Social Sciences. “Was it just one person sitting and writing all these plans? These are just compliance level reports, not a guiding document for tackling climate change.”

The report on Vulnerability Assessment by GIZ itself red-flags the lack of credible data in States that would help assess vulnerability due to climate change. “It was experienced that data collection and bringing it in usable formats (data cleaning) was the most time-consuming part of the study…. Climate data is often not available at the local level and data from a higher spatial aggregation must be used for validation/ triangulation,” says the report.

Mr. Rodriguez says the State government has to urgently invest in data collection as climate change is at the doorstep and the current drought and heat wave is a manifestation of the same. “It (State Action Plan) has some broad guidelines. If I say ‘Action Plan’, I need to know what I am doing, how I am doing it and by when. Otherwise, it is not an Action Plan. We need a roadmap that all departments can follow,” he adds.

Take for instance the chapter on Extreme Rainfall in the State Action Plan. It quotes a 2011 study published by Guhathakurta et al to observe that “for the period 1901—2005, [the analysis] indicate that Tamil Nadu is experiencing more dry days than wet days every year…. Increase in one-day extreme rainfall events of the order of 5 to 10 cm has been observed along the northern coast of the State. In the rest of the State, extreme rainfall events have increased by 5 cm or less. The analysis of a 25-year return period of rainfall shows a large variation, from 10cm in the western parts of Tamil Nadu to 25 cm and more in the northern and central coastal regions of the State.” This is a study submitted in 2015, which relies on data that is a decade-old.

“The average rainfall is not reducing but the number of rainy days is reducing,” noted Kamal Kishore, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), at a summit organised by the Confederation of Indian Industries on April 11. “90% of disasters in our country is climate-related. Disaster risk reduction is in effect pursuing the past but is not useful for the future. We need to plan for the future,” he said.

Speaking at the same event, Anoop Madhavan, Emergency Services and Communications Officer with the US Air Force’s Civil Air Patrol, said, “India is not looking at risk preparedness. We need to stop writing cheques after the disaster happens. We need to fund disaster mitigation.”

“What we need immediately is a single database,” says Ms. Vencatesan of Care Earth. “We need to be able to collate our data and make it accessible. Because this pooling of data is not available, there is a lot of duplication of work.”

‘Ostrich stance’

The State government has taken pride in its swift approach to mitigation of farmers’ distress this year. A senior bureaucrat, who did not wish to be named, reeled off a list of actions taken by the State since October 2016, which was when the realisation dawned that 2017 would be a year of severe drought. From rapidly bringing in a majority of farmers under the crop insurance scheme, teaching farmers how to switch to direct cultivation of paddy (a method which requires less water) and timing water release from the Mettur dam to great precision, to providing targeted subsidies to weedicides and zinc sulphate, the State bureaucracy has managed to avert a disaster of monumental proportions.

When asked about drinking water supply, the stock response from officials, and even the Chief Minister, is that there would be no interruption in water supply. Rather, it would be rationed.

Between 2012 and 2015, the first IAMWARM (Integrated Agriculture Modernisation and Water Bodies Restoration and Management) project was implemented in the State at a cost of ₹2,547 crore, funded for the most part by the World Bank through a loan, with a small contribution from the State. A World Bank agency was set up under the Tamil Nadu government to execute this project — the State Water Resources Management Authority (SWARMA). It was headed by S.S. Rajagopal, a retired Chief Engineer of the PWD and a water resources expert.

Mr. Rajagopal says his hand-picked team of 14, comprising agro-economists, geologists, engineers, geo-chemists and others, had compiled exhaustive data on 17 river basins, 124 sub-basins, groundwater potential and water demand from various sectors in the State, as part of the IAMWARM project. An open-source database was created and moved online as a portal — www.tnwris.gov.in.

By the end of 2015, post the floods, the IAMWARM project was completed and the entire team disbanded. With that, SWARMA, says Mr. Rajagopal, became defunct, although the authority continues to exist. The online database too has vanished. “We negotiated with BSNL to maintain the online database at a cost of ₹8 lakh per annum,” he says. “But there was no one to maintain it after we left. It is a real pity. We had gathered so much data on water resources and put them all together in one portal. We made it open-source too,” he adds.

Wanted: coherent policy

Experts argue that when it comes to water — a natural resource that is handled by a multitude of government departments — there needs to be a coherent policy and approach towards its use and conservation. “Water has never been looked at from the climate perspective,” contends Arivudai Nambi of the World Resources Institute (WRI). “It has only been looked at from a demand and supply perspective. Agriculture, city corporations, PWD — all of these departments handle water. There should be some coherence. Such an approach is not there.”

Like many other experts, Mr. Nambi also sounds the alarm on the need for collecting and collating credible data which can help the State formulate and implement climate change mitigation on a priority basis. “The government could do more to systematise the data collection process,” he argues, adding, “Academics are quite reluctant to share their data. The data gaps are huge and the quality is poor. But in the recent past, some key agencies have been trying not only to generate pertinent data but also make them accessible. This is a step in the right direction.”

Mr. Nambi, like retired PWD engineer Mr. Thirunavukkarasu, points to the ‘Red Data Book’ as an example. “This is an enumeration of endangered species. The contributions of old-time British taxonomists are immense. They went on horseback to compile the data so meticulously. This is still the Bible for botanists today,” he says, adding, “With all the advancements in science and technology, we still haven't been able to get our database right.”

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