Dealing with droughts

Droughts are predicted to rise in India (Image Source: Gaurav Bhosale via Wikimedia Commons)
Droughts are predicted to rise in India (Image Source: Gaurav Bhosale via Wikimedia Commons)

Droughts are one of the most feared natural calamities in India impacting food production, the economy as well as the morale of millions of farmers in a country where agriculture is the livelihood of 60 percent of the population.

Studies show that droughts will be more frequent in India!

There were 26 major droughts during the period of 1871–2015, when the All India Summer Monsoon Rainfall (AISMR) was found to be lesser than the mean rainfall for the country.


While many of these droughts have negatively affected agricultural output and caused immense suffering to people, recent studies show that the risk of droughts over India is predicted to increase further, particularly so in the northeastern and western parts of India!

What are droughts and how are they defined?

A drought can be defined as:

“An extended period—a season, a year, or several years—of deficient precipitation compared to the statistical multi-year average for a region that results in water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector”.

While this is a general definition, droughts can be classified into the following categories:

  • Meteorological droughts occur when there are long gaps in normal rainfall and are measured based on the degree of dryness and the duration of the dry period.
  • Agricultural droughts occur when there is insufficient soil moisture to meet the needs of a crop at a particular time. Agricultural drought usually follows meteorological drought and occurs before a hydrological drought. Agricultural drought can be measured through indicators such as lack of rainfall, changes in evapotranspiration, soil water deficits, reduced groundwater or reservoir levels etc.
  • Hydrological droughts are the result of surface and subsurface water supplies from streams, rivers and lakes becoming scarce due to scanty rainfall. The frequency and severity of hydrological droughts are defined at the watershed or river basin scale and are influenced by factors such as land degradation or land use changes, construction of dams etc.
  • Socioeconomic droughts occur when water shortage starts to affect people’s lives, individually and collectively.

This classification of droughts is very useful to measure drought frequency, severity, and duration.

What are the causes of droughts?

Droughts are caused due to lack of rains over extended periods of time. A number of factors such as temperature changes between land and water, changes in air circulation and erratic weather patterns can affect rainfall frequency and intensity leading to droughts 

Human activities such as land use changes, deforestation, urbanisation, pollution can also have a negative impact on rainfall leading to dry conditions and loss of soil moisture.

Poor rainfall and high temperatures coupled with overuse of surface and groundwater resources and poor water management practices can lead to demand for water exceeding the available water supply. These can trigger droughts.

Why is India vulnerable to droughts?

A number of factors make India susceptible to droughts such as:

  • Yearly, seasonal and regional variations in rainfall in spite of high average annual rainfall 
  • A short span of fewer than 100 days during the south-west monsoon
  • Loss of water during heavy rains as surface runoff
  • Less rainfall over 33 percent of the cropped area in the country
  • Over-exploitation of groundwater resources and poor conservation and storage mechanisms for surface water leading to inadequate water availability in times of scanty rainfall
  • Steady decline in per capita water availability for humans and animals even in non-drought years
  • Rapid deforestation, urbanisation and climate change that has been leading to erratic rainfall patterns
  • Limited irrigation coverage leading to excessive dependence of agriculture on rainfall
  • Faulty cropping patterns and over emphasis on water guzzling crops

Areas vulnerable to droughts in India


As high as 68 percent of the cropped area in India is vulnerable to droughts of which 33 percent is classified as 'chronically drought-prone' comprising desert and semiarid regions that receive less than 750 mm mean annual rainfall.

Thirty-five percent area receives 750 mm to 1125 mm rainfall and is classified as 'drought-prone' that is confined to the arid, semi-arid and sub-humid regions of peninsular and western India and include the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra.

How is a drought declared in India?

There are considerable variations in the way droughts are declared at the state level in India. Many states still continue to rely on the traditional annewari/ paisewari/ girdawari (rough estimate of standing crops in terms of how many annas, paisa in a rupee, where the rupee is considered as the standard measure of full crops) systems of drought estimation where crop production estimates are obtained by calculating the value of crops as the value of the actual yield after harvest in relation to the value of the crop grown.

Areas with less than 50 percent annewari / paisewari / girdawari are considered to be affected by a drought. The annewari / paisewari / girdawari figures for kharif crops are calculated in December, while those for rabi crops in March. This has, however, led to a lack of uniform classification of droughts.

The Government of India has laid down revised norms for drought declaration in 2015 and according to the Manual for Drought Management published in 2016, the following four categories of indices are looked at to assess the extent of drought:

  • Rainfall-related indices
  • Remote sensing-based vegetation indices
  • Crop situation-related indices
  • Hydrological indices

Rainfall is considered to be the most important while others are looked at in combination with rainfall.

Read more here

Other factors that are considered in the evaluation of droughts include:

  • Fodder availability, pricing and information on cattle camps
  • Drinking water availability for humans and livestock
  • Migration of people in search of employment
  • Agricultural and non-agricultural wages compared with normal times
  • Availability and price of food grains and essential commodities

The intensity of the drought is assessed by looking at the values of at least three of the above indicators and:

  • Severe drought is declared if three impact indicators are in the severe category
  • Moderate drought is declared if two of the three impact indicators are in the “moderate” or “severe” class
  • Drought is classified as normal for all other cases

In the case of “severe” or “moderate” drought, states are asked to conduct a sample survey to make a final determination of drought.

Read more here

Institutional structures to deal with droughts in the country

The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare (DAC&FW) under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare is the apex body that formulates policies and institutional structures for drought management at the national and state levels. The department has a Drought Management Cell (DMC) that gathers information from various sources, monitors drought conditions, issues advisories, coordinates with central government and state government ministries and other concerned agencies to mitigate the effects of drought. The department updates and reviews the Crisis Management Plan (CMP) that decides the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders in the central and state governments and their agencies in managing droughts.

A Crisis Management Group (CMG) for drought management is also expected to come up to manage various stages of drought at the central, state and district levels. Another plan is the creation of separate Drought Monitoring Centres (DMCs) at the state level which would report to the State Disaster Management Authorities (SDMA).

The DMCs can collect, collate and analyse information on drought obtained from National and State level agencies such as the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Mahalanobis National Crop Forecast Centre (MNCFC), Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), National and State Remote Sensing Application Centres (N&SRSAC), Central Water Commission (CWC) and Central Ground Water Board (CGWB).

Read more about it here

Narrow approach to drought management hinders progress

Drought management, however, continues to be inadequately addressed in the country, not due to lack of policies and institutional framework, but due to lack of proper planning, coordination between different functioning units and implementation at the ground level. Many also blame the very approach of drought management that focuses on quick-fix solutions without taking into consideration the long-term sustainability and livelihood issues of the farmers. Declaration of drought has also been found to be riddled with problems and the new norms have been blamed for being too strict making it difficult for the states to prove "severe" drought and get relief from the Centre.

While scanty rainfall, depleting water tables continue to fuel the agricultural crisis in the country, it is clear that we need to be better prepared to mitigate the impacts of a drought. Concerted action at the policy level by giving agriculture the importance it deserves and urgent adaptation strategies to cope with the situation need to be implemented urgently.

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