The city of Chennai is facing its worst water crisis in decades, the Niti Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index, released in June 2018, warns that 21 Indian cities are poised to run out of groundwater within the next few years. According to a report by the Global Drought Observatory (GDO), the Indian peninsula is facing a severe drought with the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh most affected.
This is a result of sustained heat waves in the months of May and June as well as poor rains since the second half of 2018. With droughts and water crisis becoming the new normal in India and the rest of South Asia, a new initiative by a United Nations (UN) organisation is poised to add an extra impetus to how we deal with drought.
The United Nations Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD) has designed a drought toolbox that can assess drought risk and vulnerability of any region across the world.
“Drought is considered one of the most far-reaching natural disasters, bringing short and long-term economic and social losses to millions of people worldwide. The UN drought initiative provides the support needed to develop national action plans and the drought toolbox is an initiative of the partners working with the countries to develop effective response mechanisms,” says Jeroen Van Dalen, Programme Officer at the UNCCD in Bonn, Germany.
The toolbox provides tools organised in three modules, monitoring and early warning, vulnerability and risk assessment, and risk mitigation. He adds, “The objective is to ensure that when a country is hit by drought, early action is taken based on a well laid out plan, making the country drought resilient.”
Across the world, declaring a drought can be a cumbersome process with many government departments needing to give the go-ahead before a drought is officially declared. In India too, various Union ministries, as well as state governments, need to align before an official drought is declared in any district or state. This toolbox, which is essentially an online interface and uses up to 30 different parameters, will make it easier for officials to see if the conditions for drought are satisfied and if so, what necessary actions need to be taken immediately.
As Van Dalen says, “Our tools include the use of remote sensing satellite data, we will also provide a drought resilience, adaptation, and management policy as well as an early warning portal. There will also be solutions provided such as specific techniques to ensure rainwater does not drain away too quickly, or even different ways to use the limited water that is available more efficiently.”
“One good thing about such a toolbox is they are packaging many essential features together. Having said that, we will know only after its implementation, how effective it will be,” says Professor Vimal Mishra, associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar. Professor Mishra is among the scientists who manage India’s real-time drought prediction system.
Earlier this year, Mishra and team had found that nearly 50 per cent of India is currently facing a drought with at least 16 per cent falling in the ‘exceptional’ or ‘extreme’ category. He adds, “India already has well-established drought monitoring systems, so we’ll have to wait and see what this toolbox brings to the table.”
While its effectiveness in the Indian context is still not clear, the toolbox is set to be a game changer when dealing with drought at a global scale. As Van Dalen says, “All governments will have one place where with easy access they can find every tool available to enhance resilience to drought. It’s like the supermarket for drought management tools.” The toolbox will be officially launched during the UNCCD’s Conference of Parties (CoP) in New Delhi later this year.
Sibi Arasu is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.