Farmers in Bihar are already bearing the brunt of a changing climate as impacts on agriculture and farm productivity become evident

The frequency of floods have increased in Bihar (Photo by Preeti Singh)

The frequency of floods have increased in Bihar (Photo by Preeti Singh)

In August, Bihar faced one of its worst floods, affecting 17 million people in 19 districts with a human death toll of 514. Because of incessant rains in the Terai region, a large number of small and big rivers of North Bihar swelled, washing away roads, bridges and railway tracks, snapping power lines, marooning villages and wiping off kharif crops. The state chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has asked for INR 76.36 billion in aid from the Centre for post-flood restoration and reconstruction.

“Between August 12 and 13, we received more than 300mm rainfall within 24 hours, which is unprecedented,” Nilesh Deore, district magistrate of Pashchim Champaran, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “We were prepared to handle floods in the Gandak River. But, incessant rainfall along the India-Nepal border lead to flash floods in small hilly rivers and tributaries of Gandak and Burhi Gandak.”

Areas in Pashchim Champaran that have rarely reported floods faced massive inundation this monsoon. “Mainatanr block has never reported floods, but this year over 431 houses in various villages of the block were washed away due to the floods,” said Deore.

A look at the rainfall data available on the Bihar’s government Disaster Management Department website shows the erratic rainfall received in Pashchim Champaran, which washed away standing kharif paddy crop on 100,000 acre and standing sugarcane crop on 70,000 acre (one acre equals 0.4 hectare). This amounts to a loss of INR 5 billion for the paddy crop and INR 42 billion for the sugarcane crop, claimed Deore.

Erratic and unpredictable rainfall

Between August 12 and 13, the Gaunaha block of Pashchim Champaran, along the India-Nepal border, received 367mm rainfall within 24 hours as against a normal rainfall of 10.7mm. Other administrative blocks such as Bagaha-1, Bagah-2, Narkatiaganj, Ramnagar and Sikta received 365mm, 207mm, 303.2mm, 345.8mm and 282.6mm rainfall in the same time period, respectively. But, the remaining blocks of Bairia, Bettiah (district headquarter), Bhitaha, Jogapatti, Nautan, Piprasi received only 27mm, 59mm, 70.6mm, 70.2mm, 30mm, 70mm rainfall, respectively.

“The heavy rains started early evening on August 12 and continued without any break till the next morning. The Pandai River, which comes from Nepal, rose to over 10-15 feet and washed away 70 feet land of our village. We had never seen so much rain and water in our lives,” 60-year-old Dayanand Sahini, a resident of Bhiknathori village in Dhamaura panchayat of Gaunaha block, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

The annual floods in Bihar causes heavy damage to civic infrastructure (Photo by Preeti Singh)

The annual floods in Bihar causes heavy damage to civic infrastructure (Photo by Preeti Singh)

In spite of the unprecedented floods, as of September 27, the Pashchim Champaran district has a rainfall deficit of minus 18.4%. Against a normal rainfall of 1286.9mm between June 1 and September 27, the district has received only 1050.5mm rainfall this year. But, Gaunaha block within Pashchim Champaran has received an excess rainfall of 76.8% — 2275.6mm against a normal of 1286.9mm rainfall — in the same time period.

Of the total 18 blocks in the district, 13 have reported deficient rainfall with maximum deficit of minus 61.6% in Nautan block that has received only 494.2mm rainfall against the normal rainfall of 1286.9mm between June 1 and September 27. More than 20% deficit in rainfall means drought-hit. “In the next two decades, rainfall pattern is expected to get more erratic and unpredictable due to the climatic factors, which will increase our woes,” lamented Deore.

When floods and drought co-exist

Pashchim Champaran isn’t the only district facing excess rainfall and deficient rainfall at the same time. Several other districts that were under the floods in August month are staring at deficient rainfall at the end of the southwest monsoon.

In mid-August, trains were cancelled in Poorvi Chamaparan district because railway tracks were flooded. But, at present, the district is facing minus 46.9% rainfall deficit, the highest rain deficit in the state. Araria district, where a bridge had collapsed due to high velocity floodwater, is also showing a rainfall deficit of minus 26%. Other flood-affected districts, Gopalganj, Khagaria, Sitamarhi, have rainfall deficit of minus 22.3%, minus 32.1% and minus 20.7%, respectively.

This is not all. As of September 27, of the total 38 districts of Bihar, 35 districts have rainfall deficit ranging between minus 0.4% and minus 46.9%. Twenty four districts have rain deficit of more than 20%, which means they are drought-hit. Further, of the 28 districts considered flood-prone (73.06% area of Bihar is flood-prone), 14 have a rainfall deficit ranging between minus 11.5% and minus 46.5%. Clearly, even flood-prone districts are heading towards drought.

“Since 2005, the rainfall pattern has changed in the state… The rains of southwest monsoon are both erratic and irregular,” Vyas Ji, vice chairperson of Bihar State Disaster Management Authority, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. He is also the former principal secretary of the state disaster management department. “Spatial distribution of rainfall is irregular because of which within the same district we have flood and drought. Climate change seems to be impacting Bihar in a big way.”

Thus, every year, Bihar prepares for both drought and flood, which strike simultaneously. In 2013, 20 districts of Bihar were flood-hit, but by the end of southwest monsoon, 33 districts of the state were declared drought-hit. In 2015, 2009 and 2004, over 18, 26 and 19 districts were hit by drought, respectively.

According to a 2014 paper on Drought Hazard in Bihar, which has analysed satellite datasets during the kharif season (June to October) for the years 2009 to 2012, the main reason for drought is “monsoon onset and uneven spatial distribution”.

The heavy rainfall in the Terai region caused a heavy rush of water in the smaller rivers of north Bihar (Photo by Preeti Singh)

The heavy rainfall in the Terai region caused a heavy rush of water in the smaller rivers of north Bihar (Photo by Preeti Singh)

In 2013, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) published a comprehensive monograph on State Level Climate Change Trends in India. This report is based on long-term climatic data (1951-2010) collected from 282 stations for temperatures and 1,451 stations for rainfall across India.

As per the monograph, the average annual rainfall has increased by 1.41mm over Bihar. “An increase of 1.41mm rainfall per year in Bihar isn’t significant, but if you look at the monthly variations, then it has a direct impact on agriculture and people’s livelihood,” Ashok Jaswal, former scientist with the IMD and co-author of the 2013 monograph, told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Farmers need to adjust the crop sowing and harvesting activities in keeping with the changing rainfall pattern. Adaptation and building resilience is the key.”

The IMD study also found that the annual mean temperature is showing an increasing trend in Bihar — a rise of 0.01◦C per year. According to Jaswal, this rise is significant and can have wide implications. “Vector-borne diseases may rise and so can pest attacks… Rising temperature also means more evaporation and high moisture content in the atmosphere, which leads to more thunderstorm activity and lightning,” he explained. In May, 29 people were killed in the state due to lightning and thunderstorm.

Farmers at the receiving end

Many farmers in Pashchim Champaran claimed the rainfall pattern had changed and was directly affecting farming practices. Explaining the impacts of erratic rainfall on paddy crop, which is one of the main kharif crops of Bihar, Habjullah Miyan of Baswariya village in Lauriya block told indiaclimatedialogue.net: “For a good paddy crop, about 5 cm water is needed in the paddy fields… After planting paddy, we need good rains for the initial two months, after which the crop can survive without rains for another month. But when the paddy starts flowering, good rains are again needed for 15-20 days else the crop dies.”

According to Mahesh Ram of Baswariya village, some two decades ago, there were good regular rains for four months — May, June, July and August. “We never had to use borewells and pumpsets to irrigate the paddy crop, which was completely rainfed. But now, it is impossible to do farming without additional cost of irrigation,” he said.

Dilshad Ahmed of RaibariMahua village in Bagaha-1 block spends an extra Rs 1,200 to irrigate one bigha paddy field. Vishlam Ansari of Naya Basti in Baghaibasbriya panchayat of Lauriya claimed earlier farmers used to do ropni (planting) of paddy in June, which had now shifted to July or August. “Several farmers use borewell for ropni, which was unheard of 10-15 years ago,” he said.

Acting on climate change

Two years ago, the state came up with its own Bihar State Action Plan on Climate Change, which also takes into consideration the climatic data of the IMD’s 2013 monograph. The state action plan notes that 33% of the state receives less than 750mm annual rainfall, making it “chronically drought-prone”. At the same time, 73.63% area of the North Bihar is flood-prone.

“We are worried about climate change as Bihar has low irrigation facilities. We need to research on crop varieties that can withstand floods, and are drought-resilient. Some indigenous resilient crop varieties, such as saathi paddy that used to be ready in 60 days, have already disappeared,” said Vyas Ji. Other indigenous varieties of paddy, such as desaria and barogar, which grow in five to six feet water and are medium-level flood resilient, are also slowly disappearing.

Crop insurance can help farmers deal with the risks and losses associated with climate change. But, Vyas Ji has word of caution: “crop insurance sector is still nascent in India and in favour of the insurance companies. The Centre plans to do away with the agriculture input subsidy provided by the government in case the farmer has opted for crop insurance. But, that is a highly objectionable move.”

According to Eklavya Prasad, managing trustee of non-profit Megh Pyne Abhiyan, the importance of local techniques of prognosticating the rainfall and weather patterns need to be documented, revived and used along all dual vulnerable zones (flash flood and drought). “The process of knowledge revival and utilisation ought to be linked with risk minimisation measures for closing the loop. Also, decentralised weather forecasting systems should be mandatory within the vulnerable areas as well as trans-boundary, with assured information sharing with the farmer groups, to reduce vulnerabilities due to floods and droughts,” Prasad told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

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