Lessons from fighting a drought

Seven learnings on how droughts can be managed to take the sting out of the phenomena


Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

India is facing one of its worst droughts. Water shortage has hit over 330 million people, which is more than the entire population of the US. It has hit them—especially those in rural areas—in several ways. Loss of income, thirst, hunger, ill health, emotional distress and even death. One-hundred-and-sixteen farmers from 10 states have so far committed suicide.

The pressure on the government is building. Children’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi recently urged the Prime Minister to declare the drought a national emergency. There has been a 22% rise in school dropouts in drought-hit states and 24% hike in child trafficking, he said.

More recently, in response to a public interest litigation, the Supreme Court came down heavily on state and central governments for their failure to tackle the situation.

Their anxiety and anger are understandable. These are problems that one would have expected a democracy with global aspirations to have solved years ago. That hasn’t happened for a number of reasons ranging from a lack of political vision to bureaucratic apathy.

However, amid this desert of suffering, there are some oases of hope. There are solutions—both within and outside India—that can put an end to some of the worst impacts of drought. They need to be adapted and scaled up. Founding Fuel spoke to a few people who have tried them. Here are seven takeaways from a podcast on the subject:

1. Simple solutions like desilting a dam can make a big impact

Activities such as desilting, compartment bunding and rainwater harvesting might not sound like real solutions to serious problems such as drought. After all, if they are simple and easy, why isn’t everyone doing it? We don’t know why, but it has worked for those who have tried. Take Akoladev dam in Maharashtra’s Jalna area. It’s a historic waterbody that got completely silted over years. Three years back, a group of volunteers worked with the local villagers to desilt the dam to the extent of 10-15%, and re-layered the fertile silt over agricultural land in seven villages. The results are visible today. It provides about 800,000 litres of water a day to the villages around. And thanks to the silt, the productivity of the agricultural lands has gone up, resulting in savings on fertilizers and higher income for the farmers. Amit Chandra, managing director of Bain Capital India, who was also involved in the project, says that it’s a low-cost, ecological solution that showed results. Encouraged by it, the group has now expanded the initiative to 50 villages in the Latur-Beed area.

2. It is a systemic problem that also needs policy corrections: Lessons from Africa’s Sahel region and Singapore

Concerned citizens often use “it all adds up” logic to push for small behavioural changes. One such initiative is to nudge people to stop asking for a water refill in restaurants, unless they need it. While these are important, they are not enough. Drought is time- and space-specific (that is, it happens in a region during a period) and can be countered by managing water resources better, spreading them fairly and efficiently over time and across regions. That needs policy changes. A big impact often demands big steps, points out Sundeep Waslekar, president of think tank Strategic Foresight Group. For example, coordination among different parties and institutions to decide on how and when to use and allocate water. When drought struck the Sahel region in Africa in the 1970s, the leaders of Guinea, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal took it as an opportunity to cooperate and formed the Senegal River Basin Development Organization to anticipate a crisis, manage water resources better and reduce the consequences of drought. Similarly, Singapore, recognizing that it would face a serious water problem given its dependence on Malaysia for its supply, took policy decisions early on to promote and invest in water technologies. Today, it’s at the forefront of water recycling and management.

3. Technology can solve problems

That one of the most talked about technologies that was used to address the drought in Latur district was invented back in the 1800s should underline what happens when the entire focus is on firefighting, rather than strategic planning. Waslekar says technology makes it possible to use water efficiently, to reuse water that would have been wasted, to desalinate brackish water (seawater has utility in coastal areas, whereas brackish water is spread across the land). There are many areas where drip irrigation can be efficient—you are conserving water there. He points to Israel and a few other countries that are trying out irrigation on demand, using software to direct water only to those segments of the field where water is most required. “We need to do more research on how to grow crops using less water. Of course India has good agricultural research institutes and universities, but they are too few in numbers. We need to increase their number by 10 or 20 in the country,” says Waslekar.

4. Farmers are more than willing to adopt technology—in good times and bad

It is said that doing things right will not help if you are not doing the right things. In the case of agriculture, which accounts for 80% of water usage, the crops matter. Ravichandran Vanchinathan, a farmer in the Cauvery delta region, says one of the ways he and others countered water shortage was to change crops. They primarily grow paddy, which is not as water-intensive as sugar cane, but is still among the top water guzzlers. While they were not facing a drought, constant power cuts meant, in practical terms, scarcity of water. So, a group of farmers came together and decided to try pulses, which consume less water. It helped, says Vanchinathan.

5. In bad times, it is important to see farmers as partners and participants, and not merely as beneficiaries

When it comes to dealing with drought, those with the most skin in the game are the farmers. It should come as no surprise then that not only do they contribute money and efforts towards development initiatives, they also came up with some innovative ways to execute them. One example that social entrepreneur Nimesh Sumati, who is part of a group of volunteers called Caring Friends, cites is a token system to distribute work, inspired by the system they used in their community kitchen. When Chandra of Bain Capital India travelled to drought-hit areas, he found the condition bad, but he also saw people ready and willing to work to make things better. In fact, the desired impact is best achieved when there is a partnership between the funders/advisers, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and local communities, says Chandra.

6. Reduce distress: Bringing the community together can mitigate emotional stress

There is a school of thought that charity should end with providing money or food, and not intervene too much in the lives of the beneficiaries. But a crisis like a drought or famine is not just about the lack of water or food. It also has an emotional impact. It can take away one’s self-confidence. Feeling lonely can make matters worse. Chandra says community kitchens brought people together and the human interaction gave them a lot of confidence. Sumati of Caring Friends says that the community kitchen also broke caste and religious barriers, with Brahmins eating food cooked by Dalits, and Hindus and Muslims sharing meals together.

7. But the key is to learn—not just from failures but also successes

The word “resilience” tends to get used a lot to describe a city or a region at the end of a disaster such as floods—meaning that life goes on, till the disaster strikes again. No lessons are learnt. There is a need to do things differently if we hope to learn from the mistakes. Dasra, an NGO, has been documenting the work done in the Marathwada region. The idea is to create a template that can be used in other regions and scale up the development activities fast.

Listen to the podcast on www.foundingfuel.com , where Amit Chandra, Nimesh Sumati and Sundeep Waslekar talk about finding systemic solutions to a recurring problem.

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