Drought
Bad agricultural practices, industrial pollution and urban ignorance - the recipe for the perfect drought.
Mettur Dam

A progressive farmer, K Sundaram, sold his seventh cow recently for a paltry sum of Rs. 7,500, unable to provide for it in the face of drought. Once an owner of 19 acres and nine cows, besides several goats, this State General Secretary of the Tamizhaga Vivasayigal Sangam, is today left with just seven acres and two cows. Having given up agriculture seven months ago, this resident of Vaiyappamalai, 24km from Tiruchengode, now shops for his monthly supply of groceries. But he is not worried about having to buy for his family, what irks him is the inability to do what he is meant for – provide food for others.

When the release of water from the Cauvery started depleting, he started pumping more and more from his borewell. He even let villagers draw from his well. But with no rains and no scope for the water table to get recharged, there was very little left.

He started selling his land and his cattle too. “Fodder for the cattle came from our own land. Now that everything has dried up, we have to buy. But what we cannot afford to buy is the water. A cow needs on an average 40 litres a day. I was not able to manage this, hence I had to do distress selling. Normally a cow goes for Rs. 30,000,” Sundaram says.

The Cauvery is at its lowest ebb, literally and figuratively. Caught in the web of the worst drought in 140 years, the majestic Mettur Dam or the Stanley Reservoir that is the lifeline to as many as 12 districts in Tamil Nadu has reached the dead storage mark and the water level stands at nearly 24 feet vis-a-vis the full reservoir level (FRL) of 120 ft.

Dry basin, bad agriculture

Blame it on the failure of the north-east monsoon (October-December 2016) or the refusal of Karnataka to release the stipulated water, the basin is today reduced to tiny puddles of water and a lot of sand. Even this water is contaminated enough to kill stray cattle that try to quench their thirst. 

The Central Water Commission’s rating of the basin storage position of Cauvery, whose water utilisation is the highest among all the rivers in the country, is “highly deficient”. The total State rainfall in 2016 was 550 mm as against the annual average of 945 mm, which amounted to a 41% deficit. The north-east monsoon during October-December 2016 brought 168 mm rainfall as against the average 440 mm, which amounted to 62% deficit. The 2016 NE monsoon is said to be the worst only after 1876, which recorded 163 mm rainfall.

File image

Rainfall in TN is divided as follows:  48% is from the north-east monsoon, 32% from the south-west monsoon, and the rest from summer and winter showers. While the Cauvery basin on the Karnataka side benefits from the south-west monsoon, the basin on the Tamil Nadu side benefits from the north-east rainfall.  Karnataka has the advantage of being an upper riparian State with four dams – Hemavathi, Harangi, Krishna Raj Sagar, and Kabini, while TN is a lower riparian State, dependent on water that flows from Karnataka, and has two major dams – Mettur and Bhavani Sagar. 

Though 12 districts are fed by the Mettur dam, there are distinct differences in the cropping and water use and saving pattern in the districts that fall in the Cauvery basin area that include Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Salem, Erode, Namakkal, Perambalur, Tiruchirapalli, Ariyalur, and Pudukottai, and those that fall in the Delta region, namely Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam, according to B.J. Pandian, Director of the Water Technology Centre, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore. 

Cauvery basin. Source: TN government

“Opening of the dam on the customary date of June 12 for the irrigation season that lasts till January has not been regular the past few years. Delta farmers who live beyond Kallanai (Grand Anicut) mostly follow the conventional cropping pattern and irrigation practices.  Though TNAU advocates changes in cropping pattern, moving away from water-intensive paddy and sugarcane, they do not adopt this in a full-fledged manner. Most of the times the whole crop fails because of failed monsoon,” adds Dr. Pandian.

Farmers in the Cauvery area engage in diversified agriculture and water saving techniques.  Secondary agriculture and animal husbandry are preferred. These farmers are open to alternative cropping patterns, cultivating commercial crops, and following drip irrigation methods. Even if the first crop is rice, it is followed by dry land crops such as maize, ragi, millets, etc. They also have the advantage of more ground water in the absence of surface water availability. Hence, though there is drought, even debts, despair and deaths are not common here as in Thanjavur, Thiruvarur and Nagapattinam.

While Siruvani and Pilloor dams take care of the drinking water needs of Coimbatore and Tirupur districts, Pollachi and Udumalpet are served by the Parambikulam Aliyar Project. The Bhavani Sagar dam addresses the irrigational needs. 

Farmer Sundaram

Sundaram is very disappointed that the Government is busy fighting its internal battles with no time to address the water woes. “When the AIADMK in its May 2016 Assembly election manifesto included provision of drinking water in all panchayats and municipalities, it should have come as a wakeup call that tough times were ahead in terms of water problems. But no one bothered.”

Water and environmental experts say that the Corporation /Panchayats had failed to maintain traditional rainwater harvesting structures such as tanks and ponds that have led to them getting silted, polluted or dried up. Otherwise, these could have served as timely alternative sources of water in such distress times. 

Industrial scale wastage and pollution

If this is the case of tanks and ponds, the basin itself is a bed of pollutants. Major industries in the vicinity dealing with chemicals, aluminium, steel, textile, cement, leather, sugar, have added to the contamination by discharging untreated effluents and sewage. While there was flowing water, these got diluted and hence did not pose an evident threat. But today, they form puddles of pollutant-laden dirty water. Since some cattle have died after drinking from these puddles, there is a fear that if the residual water is pumped for drinking purposes by water tankers, it might lead to dire consequences. 

Activists lament that it was only very recently that water supply was stopped to major industries such as the Madras Aluminium Company Ltd. (MALCO), Chemplast Sanmar, SAIL’s steel plant, and the like that had direct pipeline supply from the dam. 

Most of them are water guzzling industries; for instance, one kg of leather manufacturing requires 75 litres of water, one kg of sugar production needs 30 litres, and one litre of alcohol brewing needs 40 litres. 

It is stipulated that these industries follow the zero discharge-recycle-reuse policy, wherein they have to recycle their effluent water and reuse it.  But this is only on paper.  This leads to not only enormous water wastage but also large scale contamination of the river.   

Sundaram has received the drought relief of Rs. 3,000 per acre. But, he like others, are clear that this is not going to ensure water for farming or drinking. With an imminent closure of the sluice gates of the Mettur dam in the next few days, some farmers say that it is not even clear if the State has been declared drought-hit.

Urban ignorance

This is also true from the fact that urbanites are not aware of the seriousness of the situation and assume the drought is restricted only to the farmer and rural TN. People in towns and cities are more worried about the heat than the reality of the water situation. This is because drought is an “invisible threat” unlike a flood that is a “visible threat”. The Government should declare the whole State as drought-hit and ask those living in urban areas to go slow on water. They should realise that drought is a reality for every common man, says an environmentalist. 

School teacher R. Jemima from Salem says that she is sad for farmers who have lost their crops because of the failed monsoon.  Was she aware that the Mettur dam would close down, that bore wells were drying up and there could be a severe shortage of water? “No, I don’t think it is going to affect us.  May be farmers will not be able to cultivate, but as long as we pay, we will get water supplied through the tankers.”