Flash drought 

#GS1 #Geography #Monsoon 


Quite unlike the conventional drought that takes months or even years to develop, the onset of a flash drought is sudden. It occurs during a dry spell in the monsoon season and has a devastating impact on agriculture. 


What is a ‘flash drought’? 

  • A flash drought is characterised by rapid onset and intensification caused by high evapotranspiration due to extreme heat, wind and high incoming solar radiation. It can develop in as little time as 10 to 15 days. 


Flash droughts in India 

  • The country suffered 39 flash droughts between 1951 and 2018, four of which were major. 
  • The worst was in 1979 affecting north-central India and the Indo- Gangetic Plains, followed by 2001, 1958 and 1986, in the order of intensity, and affecting northern and central India. 
  • Each year, flash droughts have affected 10 to 15 per cent area under rice and maize since 1951. 
  • 82 per cent of the flash droughts occurred during monsoon and in central northeast, northeast, northwest, west central regions that fall in the core monsoon zone. 
  • Only the Himalayan and peninsular regions experienced more flash droughts in non-monsoon seasons.  


Recent flash droughts in India 

  • Take the case of Madhya Pradesh. The state is India’s largest soybean producer, but as per the Indian Institute of Soybean Research, Indore, it lost 15 per cent of the crop this July due to nearly a month-long dry spell. 
  • Though most districts here reported above the normal rainfall that month, some like Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh, Hoshangabad and Shivpuri recorded a deficit rainfall by 40 per cent. 
  • Similarly, nine of Odisha’s 30 districts reported 40 per cent deficit rainfall. The dry spell ended in August, but by then farmers were already distraught. 


International mechanisms 

  • The US first recognised the weather event in the early 2000s. It created the US Drought Monitor, and in 2012 recorded the expansion of abnormally dry conditions from 30 per cent of the continent in May to over 60 per cent by August. This had a significant impact on agriculture. 
  • Now, the US declares a flash drought if, within four weeks, the US Drought Monitor records changes in at least two of the five categories—abnormally dry, moderate drought, severe drought, extreme drought and exceptional drought. Meanwhile, China and Australia have shifted their focus of research on flash droughts. 
  • But India does not even recognise a flash drought. So when farmers suffer crop losses they cannot approach the government for compensation. Worse, India’s drought management plan is outdated and does not take into account the changing rainfall patterns. 


What should be our response? 

  • The only solution to the problem is predicting flash droughts and developing an early warning system at the local level so that farmers can prepare themselves. 
  • There is the tendency to treat drought with relief schemes, adopted after crops are already destroyed. It is handled by the revenue department. This needs to change to a preventive model. All departments should work together to help farmers adapt. 
  • Insurance schemes like Fasal Bima Yojana must take flash drought into consideration. 
  • Since rapid depletion in soil moisture leads to flash drought, soil moisture should be the main indicator to identify a flash drought. 
  • At present, Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) uses Standardised Precipitation Index to measure drought, but it is related only to rainfall and does not considers wind speed, soil moisture, temperature and rainfall. IMD must come up with a localised index for agriculture.


Way Forward

  • Further, efforts should be made to improve soil’s water holding capacity. 
  • We talk about groundwater and surface water, but forget green water. 
  • The water transpired by plants that comes from rains and stored in soil is green water. 
  • Improving this requires steps such as arresting run-off or velocity of water so that it has more time to percolate, and improving soil quality and structure through additional biomass and green manure and compost. These can help plants withstand the dry spell. 
  • Changing cropping patterns can also curb quick setting of a drought. Farmers should sow drought-resistant plants that ensure a crop even if one flowering gets disrupted by a flash drought. 
  • Organic matter conservation and enhancement is also important to make farmlands resistant to drought.
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