One of India's most unique and fragile ecological systems is buckling under the pressure of climate change forcing people to abandon centuries-old traditions.
The dusty desert town of Bhuj, with its broken gates and ruins of a glorious past, is a mixture of ancient and new. The small city serves as the headquarters of Kutch district in western India which has been flattened by several earthquakes that destroyed most of its ancient centre: the most recent one, in 2001, claimed thousands of lives.
The district of Kutch, in the northwestern part of Gujarat, is a vast expanse of parched lands that extends until neighbouring Pakistan. Only three years ago, Harmisar Lake in Bhuj was full of water and teeming with life on its shores – the fulcrum around which the life of the city turned. The lake has now dried up entirely over the last year and stands as a reminder of the enduring water crisis. The shores have come to encircle a wide cavity with a muddy bottom, cracked and arid.
India has coped with a severe heatwave this summer while the monsoon rains were delayed in some areas of the northwest. In Gujarat, rising temperatures have compounded one of the worst droughts of the last thirty years. The state suffered a 76 percent deficit on its average rainfall during the southwest monsoon in 2018 and delayed seasonal showers made people fear for another season of scarcity.
“We have analysed rainfall data, and we understood that earlier rainfalls started at the end of June, with July as peak showers time, to slowly decrease. Now if you look at the rainfall patterns, it starts at the end of July or even in August,” Vijay Kumar, head of the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (GUIDE) explained to TRT World.
Erratic rainfall and drought are a curse for arid regions whose farmers rely on rainwater for their crops, yet in Kutch, the lack of water is not news. In Kutch a 3-year-cycle of drought and two years of over-rain is considered a standard pattern and local tribal communities have developed ways to cope with scarcity, in fact, their entire culture revolves around scarcity.
Somehow, history seems to be repeating itself in Kutch.
In 1819 the Rann of Kutch, the Thar Desert’s salt marsh, was rocked by a strong earthquake that made the Indus river change its course and shift west into Pakistan: the quake created a ridge that was named Allah Bund, the dam of God.
As a consequence of these tectonic changes, but also due to the damming upstream, many rivers have been drying up in Kutch in the last 200 years, aggravating a longstanding water crisis. The crescent-shaped peninsula, with its 45 thousand square kilometres pushing out into the ocean, geologically is like an island.
During the rainy season, the shallow marsh of the Rann gets slowly submerged with seawater cutting its only bridge to the mainland. In such a delicate and ever-changing ecosystem, the effects of climate change on rainfalls patterns and temperatures have further increased land degradation. The phenomenon is particularly evident in the Banni region: a unique ecosystem of wetland turning into grassland, which once used to be the largest and finest of the subcontinent. A land with a long history of migratory pastoralism.
Today, the famous grassland that forms the outer belt of the Rann is an expanse of muddy and cracked soil speckled by a thin salt crust that covers it with a shiny film. With the increasing salinisation and desertification of the land, many herders had no choice but to migrate in search of better livelihood.
The degradation of the grassland has also been partly due to the introduction of an alien species that have undermined the native ones. Banni is today invaded by prosopis juliflora, a shrub locally known as gando baval, planted in an attempt to contain desertification.
“Prosobis was imported from Peru to Australia, Africa and India in the 60s as it can survive in dry areas, but it’s an invasive alien plant, considered among the top 100 invasive plants in the world,” points out Vijay Kumar.
The plant is today the only green cover of the otherwise desert plains. Some poor communities have turned to charcoal production, given its availability and sizable market, proving once again the resilience and adaptive attitude of its inhabitants.
Driving north of Bhuj through the Banni grassland, the barren landscape is dotted with thorny bushes here and there with herds of buffaloes and cows lazily moving forward in a cloud of dust. Tiny mud villages of the local tribal communities are scattered across the desert plains.
The clanking noise sometimes breaks the silence of a speeding truck on the only road. “Tell Modi (the current PM) that our animals are dying,” Niyamat Bai, a tiny old lady belonging to the Maldhari nomadic community says with a grin, “only herders with big livestock get subsidies, nothing for our goats.”
Maldharis, like Rabaris, are pastoralist tribes that traditionally moved around the barren lands between Gujarat and Rajasthan. Before the Partition of British India, they would graze until Sindh, in what is today Pakistan. Yet these days many Maldharis have settled down and travel only in times of severe drought with many resorting to embroidery as a means to earn money.
This year the government has joined hands with local NGOs to set up some 400 cattle camps across the region, but the pre-monsoon drought has forced many herders to migrate out of the district to fetch fodder.
“Our data of over 12 years shows that during drought cycles migration of Maldharis with their livestock has been very high,” explains Ramesh Bhatti, programme director of Sahjeevan Trust, a Bhuj-based organisation that works with local communities.
There are almost a hundred rivers and small rivers in Kutch—some of which have dried up entirely now—and twenty major dams and a series of smaller ones to capture the rainy-season runoff.
“The problem is that rainfalls are unpredictable and the temperature is very high, even when storing rainwater half of it will be lost due to evaporation, surface water in Kutch reaches 43 degrees Celsius,” Kumar explains.
The damming of Gujarat’s northern rivers in the 1960s has partly aggravated the region’s water crisis and the Banni desertification. Gujarat’s water lifeline is the river Narmada, with the imposing and controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam.
Yet, many villages in Kutch have never received water from the canal in the 71 years since it was built, promising to bring water to parched northern Gujarat, while the focus on externally supplied water prompted the abandonment of traditional water-harvesting practices.
“In Gujarat, the state has ‘manufactured’ one dominant perception of water, namely the Narmada project as the single solution,” writes Lyla Metha in a paper where she highlights how poor water management practices have aggravated the crisis.
All farmers here rely on the monsoon for their crops. When the monsoon is scarce they use groundwater for irrigation: fifty years ago, the water table was higher and richer but is deepening by one meter every year and is also deeply unequal in terms of access.
A local farmer in his 60s says he as to drill up to 500-700 feet to find water now, and the deeper he goes, the saltier the water gets, which is not suitable for crops.
“In 20 years the water table will be dry, only big farms linked to rivers and dams can survive, all the other small farmers relying on rain and groundwater will perish,” he claims as he sits in the shade watching three men unload a truck full of cow dung in his field.
This year he came to an agreement with a family of herders, who would be allowed to use his field for grazing their cattle and in exchange they would provide him with dung to fertilise the soil. These kinds of deals are becoming common in Kutch, where the hardships imposed by the prolonged drought have propelled a network of self-help among farmers and herders. This year a large number of cattle have died; the situation was so alarming before the summer that the district administration started sourcing fodder from outside.
“There is a self-help network among villagers, farmers and herders: for birthdays and even funerals people started gifting cheques of at least 500 rupees ($7.05) to buy grass and straws to feed the cattle,” explains Kamleshbahi, dressed in a kurta, as he tends to a herd of grazing buffaloes.
With a significant population of cow breeds, buffaloes, goats and camels (that almost equals the human population of the area) animal husbandry is the second largest industry in Kutch, and the region has become famous for its livestock and related activities. But the industry struggles today with the effects of prolonged drought or even rainstorms, as rainfalls patterns seem to have dramatically changed over the last thirty years, adding to the peculiarity of a land that has transformed over the centuries and continues to evolve.
In this hostile environment, local communities have developed their strategies to stay resilient and adapt to the changing conditions. A study that explores the rural perception of climate change in Kutch shows that although most rural interviewees were not familiar with the scientific concept of climate change, they did notice sharp changes in weather patterns.
After three years of drought, Kutch has finally seen some rainfall this summer, although delayed, which made locals fear another year of drought.
While the record heatwave and water scarcity are hollowing out the animal-rearing economy in Kutch, its industries continue to thrive. Most of the district’s growth came under intense development as part of the 2001 earthquake relief plan.
The industrialisation drive in the northernmost tip of the state is part of the largest development model that Gujarat has experienced in the last decade, the state where both Mahatma Gandhi and the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, hail from.
Kutch, in particular, is a mineral-rich region with a large reserve of lignite, bauxite, gypsum and other minerals. People in the region have started wondering how factories, unlike farmers, are receiving water.
According to a study by IndiaSpend, industries in Kutch and Saurashtra are taking more water than they're allocated and they all show the Sardar Sarovar Dam as their primary source of water supply, yet farmlands remain parched. In such a drought-prone area, groundwater extraction and water table sinking are bound to increase over the years aggravating farmers’ distress and urban migration.
According to Lyla Metha, who has extensively studied water issues and the case of Kutch, while water has emerged as one of the most pressing problems for the future of humanity, water scarcity is not a natural condition instead it “is often socially mediated and the result of socio-political processes."
Water must be sufficiently tapped through rainwater harvesting and catchment area treatment, she argues, instead of all the attention being focused on large dam projects – as locals used to do before the dams came.