Agri Business

Rice bowl reels under impact of severe dry spell

V sajeev kumar Kochi | Updated on January 27, 2018




“Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” The modern rendition of Samuel Coleridge’s famous line in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner seems apt to describe the prevailing situation in Kochi, which is surrounded by a vast expanse of backwaters and yet is facing one of its worst droughts. Indeed, there is an acute drinking water shortage in Kerala’s commercial capital.

The water level in the Periyar, its major drinking water source, which is also the State’s longest river, is fast depleting.

Ernakulam District Collector Mohammed Y Safirulla says there was a 35 per cent deficit in rains from June 2016 to February 2017 due to the failure of both the South-West and North-East monsoons. This has led to a crop loss worth ₹2 crore in the Pokkali farmlands, affecting farming on 1,090 hectares.

However, the Collector denies that the situation is alarming; the district administration has already taken steps to rejuvenate wells and ponds, he says.

“We have identified more than 500 water sources like wells, ponds, finished or abandoned quarries. The presence of sufficient water sources and an adequate response mechanism is now ensuring prompt supplies. Priority will be given to drinking water, followed by domestic, agriculture and industrial needs”, he said.

However, Sunny George, Director, SCMS Water Institute in Kochi, blames changes in the weather pattern for the shortage of rains and over-exploitation for the groundwater crisis.

Groundwater depletion

The entire district had received a fair amount of rainfall but the groundwater level has not been replenished due to poor percolation due to massive filling of wetlands, paddy fields and other water bodies.

Quoting a survey, he said there is a shortfall of six million litres and Kochi’s rainwater table has gone down by 1.5 to 2 metres.

Salinity in groundwater within 1.4 km of the seashore is another scourge. Since most of the city areas come under the critical or semi-critical zone, experts suggest an effective monitoring system to conserve water sources and introduction of permits to drill wells. There should also be measures to recharge groundwater.

Palakkad reeling

Almost 160 km from Kochi, Bhagavaldas, a 60-year-old farmer in Chittur Taluk of Palakkad, has little to celebrate this March as he is in dire straits following crop failure and resultant loss.

Palakkad, the rice bowl of Kerala, is facing its worst drought in recent times due to the failure of consecutive monsoons. This has led to a drastic dip in the second paddy crop between January to May to 20,000-25,000 tonnes from last year’s 1.32 lakh tonnes. If Kerala is assessed as rainfall-deficient, Palakkad is ‘large deficient.’

“My main income is from paddy cultivation. Since the first crop has given me only half of the yield, I’ve decided not to sow the second crop this season. I’ve a debt of around ₹4 lakh availed from different banks as agricultural loans and I am not in a position to repay,” he adds.

Bhagavaldas is not the only one facing this predicament. A majority of farmers in Chittur taluk, Palakkad’s main paddy production centre, is worried due to the fall in output. With designated agencies delaying sanction of procurement price by 3-4 months, this has resulted in defaults in loan repayments.

According to Muthalamthode Mani, general secretary of the Desiya Karshaka Samajam, the state government has failed to convince Tamil Nadu about the need to ensure Kerala gets its rightful share of water from the Aliyar dam, as per the terms of the Parambikulam Aliyar Inter-state River Treaty. Kerala has received on a third of its share in the last three months, he says. Thousands of acres of agricultural land have dried up in Palakkad.

As per the agreement, Kerala is entitled to 7.250 TMC ft water for irrigation needs of 20,000 hectares of agricultural land. The agreement was signed on September 1, 1958, subject to provision of a review every 30 years. But no such review has been done so far, he added.

Mani said Kerala’s paddy acreage has sunk to 1.75 lakh hectares from 8.25 lakh hectares in 1970, with Palakkad contributing half. But due to the drought, production has dropped to a fourth.

To make paddy cultivation viable, he said the government should increase the procurement price to ₹30/kg from the present 22.50/kg and set up a revolving fund for timely compensation to farmers for procurement.

Wayanad under pressure

As the weather plays truant, the picturesque hill station of Wayanad, a hub of coffee plantations, which contributes heavily to the state’s output of cash crops, remains badly hit. The total loss in the agriculture sector in the district is reported to be in the range of ₹220 crore.

Plantation crops provide a livelihood to more than 75 per cent of the population; basic commerce and tourism sector are its other beneficiaries.

A stable climate, soil texture, weather pattern, altitude, and flora and fauna determine the sustainability of many of the cash crops, says N Dharmaraj, former Upasi president, who hails from Wayanad.

But the district of Wayanad registered the highest seasonal rainfall deficit of 59 per cent between June to September 2016 and this has had a deleterious impact on water reserves.

The weather pattern is gradually but inexorably witnessing a sea change. The dry and wet spells are turning inconsistent, he said.

Spices are important commercial crops and predominantly as rain-fed. Farmers are solely dependent on the South-West and North-East monsoon. Most small and marginal farmers suffer from lack of irrigation facilities, says A Jayathilak, Chairman, Spices Board.

However, coffee (robusta) is fairly drought resistant and so far has survived the drought, thanks to timely blossom showers last year. On the other hand, annual crops such as paddy and spices, which cannot sustain more than a month without rains, have been badly hit by the prolonged absence of rain and resultant drought, said MD Venkatasubramanian, a veteran coffee planter and past Vice Chairman of the Coffee Board.

“A low crop has a long-term impact on the farmer. If the coffee crop is down, the cost of harvest as also average earnings will diminish, dampening the rural economy,” he said.

The influx of tourists is also putting pressure on the water table. KR Parameshwaran, owner of Grass Roots Resorts, was of the view that Wayanad can withstand these pressures if waters in the catchment areas of two dams — Banasura Sagar and Karapuzha — is harnessed properly.

Despite the fact that the two wildlife sanctuaries and trekking points have been closed due to drought, the tourist inflow has not been impacted in the district and has witnessed 10-15 per cent growth, a DTPC official said.

Fertiliser sales hit

The sales of FACT, the main supplier of complex fertilisers and ammonium sulphate in South India, have fallen drastically.

The company has managed to clock only 15 per cent of its monthly sales of around 40,000 tonnes of Factamfos (Ammonium Phoshpate Sulphate) in the September-January Rabi season in Tamil Nadu.

The company’s fertilisers are widely used in Southern parts of Karnataka also, but this year the drought has affected sales drastically, said D Nandakumar, Chief General Manager (Marketing), FACT.

The fall in sales has led to heavy accumulation of inventory, which necessitated a cut in production volume, he added.

Published on March 20, 2017

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