J Cherian, an MBA in biotech from Scotland, who took to farming on his ancestral property in central Kerala, watches in despair as a merciless March sun beats down on his young plants.

“This is unlike anything that I've seen in my eight years in the fields,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders.

The administration seemed to concur, with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan declaring that artificial rain was an option that was seriously being explored in the ‘monsoon-gateway’ state.

The government gave further vent to its concern by asking a stunned PepsiCo to drastically cut down usage of groundwater for its Palakkad bottling plant by as much as 75 per cent.

Worst in a century Cherian says the drought, widely considered the worst in over a century, has led to wilting of his cardamom, coffee and pepper crops.

Cardamom is hypersensitive to dryness and has suffered the most. “When there is not enough water to drink, how can one hope to irrigate the plants,” he wonders. “Even if it were to rain now, it would not make any big difference.”

(Even as this was being written, the first showers of summer, heavy at times, lashed parts of the State and helped douse raging wild fires in the vulnerable Western Ghats.)

A group of small-time farmers in Cherian's neighbourhood said what was even more painful was the shortage of fodder for cattle.

Fodder crunch Milk production has dwindled to half. Fodder, which used to be freely available, commands a premium price of up to ₹16 per kg.

Depending on the size and growth stage, cattle consume 6-10 kg of fodder a day. Maintaining a cow is now a losing proposition. This is leading to distress sale of cattle for prices as low as ₹17,000, for pedigreed animals that command up to ₹60,000.

Jaimol, another young farmer, who owns a herd of 15 hybrids, says she is finding it difficult to make both ends meet. These are only glimpses of the turmoil in farmlands in Kerala’s interior.

Is this a natural calamity or a man-made crisis, hastened by abuse of precious natural resources? Available evidence shows one conspiring with the other to present farmers with a fait accompli .

Consider these facts. The State has 44 rivers, of which 41 flow to the west (emptying into the sea) and three to the east. It receives 2.78 times more rainfall than the national average — or five and three times more than Rajasthan and neighbouring Tamil Nadu, respectively.

It has the world’s maximum well density—6.6 million wells drilled into the small landscape. Apparently, there is a well for every seven persons in the state.

There are close to 1,000 farm ponds with an average size of 0.5 hectares; over 20 artificial reservoirs; three large fresh water lakes; and numerous perennial springs.

But what good are these if there is no rain to fill them, especially when the monsoons are increasingly seen to be failing?

Small rivers It is not as if a good monsoon would make things incredibly better. Because, one hand of Nature tends to take away from the State what it gives with the other.

The rivers are short in length and drop sharply in elevation as they flow to the low lands. This causes water to rapidly drain out and discharge into the sea.

Going by the national norm for size, Kerala does not have a single ‘major’ river and has only four ‘medium’ rivers. The total catchment is only 28,739 sq km and the discharge, 72,873 MCM.

The combined discharge of its 44 rivers is less than that of a single major South Indian river such as the Godavari.

A few decades ago, the thick forest cover and vegetation that characterised the state had facilitated relatively high percolation of rainwater.

But large-scale encroachment of forest land, destruction of forests, and reclamation of natural ecosystem buffers such as ponds, wetlands and paddy fields, have reversed the situation.

Due to poor retention capacity of the soil, rainwater cannot be conserved effectively any more. Not enough has been done to hold it back so it suitably charges ground water aquifers.

Widespread abuse and wastage of water by a people known for high literacy has not helped matters either.

Attitudinal change This calls for bringing about an attitudinal change among people and their habits. After all, water is turning into a precious commodity in the land of rivers and backwaters.

Availability per capita is one of the lowest here and has been declining over time, says a task force report on agriculture development by the Kerala Planning Board.

“Waste water recycling is as important as conservation," notes P Rajasekharan, Chief of the Agricultural Division at State Planning Board.

Kerala must also seek to assimilate the best practices in pond rehabilitation and recharge from neighbouring States, he adds.

Minor irrigation should be promoted since the average farm size is small here, the land-labour ratio is low, and capital resources are scarce.

Its other advantages are low investment needs per hectare, a shorter payback period, easier management, reduced environmental damage and better suitability to agro-ecologies.