BENGALURU: Last monsoon, Kerala watched in horror as its people, houses and roads floated away in massive floods. This year, the weather has swung to the other extreme: the state is crying for a drop of rain.
The South-West monsoon (June to September) made landfall in Kerala on 8 June, a week later than predicted, and has since been deficient by an estimated 35%. Except central Kerala, which has been receiving moderate rainfalls, most other parts of the state is gripping under a crisis owing to missing rains.
The story is similar in other parts in southern India, where monsoon missing has brought water woes to a halt. Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital for instance, had nearly ran out of water when the government ordered water to be delivered by trains from a place 220km away in June. Three private forecasters have said it will be a below normal monsoon this year, but India's official weather forecaster Indian Meteorological Department estimates a normal monsoon.
In Kerala, the shortage has dried up the reservoirs, that make work the state's hydroelectric power stations, partly forcing the state to hike electricity charges by 11.4% for domestic consumers this week. To make things worse, only 11% of water is remaining in the state's major dams, hardly enough to satisfy a week's power demand, which is why it may have to raise the charges again since purchasing power from outside the state is now a necessity, according to M M Mani, the power minister. The hike in charges is despite it being bad politics for the ruling Left government, which is still coming to terms with its biggest recent setback in parliamentary polls in Kerala in May, when it lost 19 out of 20 seats.
The trend of weather extremes is worrying, says climate experts. This is the third rainfall deficiency in Kerala in this decade, and in between the state also faced its worst floods. Otherwise, Kerala was known to get about six months of rains every year. "We are hoping a revival (of rains) post mid-July, as per IMD predictions. We are planning to do an assessment of the water crisis between 15 and 20 July, and recommend the government, among other things, whether to declare drought or not," said climate expert and the official disaster management cell's chief, Shekar Kuriakose.
Local reports say 70% of the local bodies are now banking on commercial water tankers to deliver drinking water in Kerala. Farmers are devasted; many have not yet being able to launch the crop season on 22 June, the day of 'Thiruvathira Njattuvela'. The day is considered to be most auspicious for launching the crop season, marked usually with copious rainfall.
"There has been a massive state intervention to prevent a gripping drinking water shortage, so it has not yet become like how it is playing out in Chennai," said Kuriakose.
Monsoon is crucial for Kerala economy too. One of India's greenest corners, the season marks the peaking time of Rs. 30,000 crore tourism sector, that accounts for 10% of the state's gross domestic product and employs around 1.4 million people. The missing rains have taken the charm out of the industry and has hit businesses, said Shine K S, CEO of 'Kerala Travel Mart' , the biggest official tourism marketing expo held every year.
"People come to Kerala, especially to the hill stations, just to chill in monsoon. We get a lot of international tourists and upper middle-class tourists during this season. It is also the peak time of visit for many from the Arab countries, since it is vacation time there and they share a close relationship with Keralities. But for all of this, it has to rain."
The sector was just trying to revive itself out of the huge number of cancellations the hotels received after last year's floods and the recent Nipah virus scare. A 23- year old Kerala student had got Nipah in June, which has no vaccine or cure, triggering a wave of cancellations in major hotel chains.