‘We can only watch our animals die’: A drought disaster in Kutch

In Kutch, a northern Gujarat district, residents say their livelihoods are at risk as experts warn of a water crisis.

India''s Kutch
A Rabari man tends to his flock. Also called Rewari or Desai, Rabaris are nomadic cattle herders and shepherds from northwest India [Andrea de Franciscis/Al Jazeera]

Kutch district, Gujarat, India – Over the past few days, dark monsoon clouds have enveloped the small desert town of Bhuj, in the Indian state of Gujarat, with rainfall finally bringing relief to the distressed region.

A severe heatwave has hit India this summer.

In Gujarat, the scant rainfall and rising temperatures have aggravated one of the worst droughts in the past 30 years.

The northwestern state saw a 76 percent deficit on its average rainfall during the monsoon in 2018, and delayed seasonal showers raised fears of another drought year.

The district of Kutch, in the north of Gujarat, stretches until the border with Pakistan in a vast expanse of barren lands swept by warm winds. 

Right in the centre of Bhuj, Hamirsar Lake used to be a focal point, a place where the locals went to bathe and pray. 

It was the fulcrum around which the life of the city – destroyed by an earthquake in 2001 – used to turn. 

The lake has totally dried up over the past year, a reminder of the enduring water crisis.

“Our average of precipitation is 350-360mm, yet in the last years we registered very low rainfalls. This year, monsoon has reached Gujarat but the season is still on, so it’s hard to predict,” Vijay Kumar, director of the Gujarat Institute for Desert Ecology (GUIDE), a Bhuj-based organisation that studies the region’s fragile ecosystem, told Al Jazeera. 

“In Kutch, a three-year drought cycle is considered a normal pattern.”

Local communities had learned to cope, but this summer many were forced to migrate.

There used to be lot of grass for our animals to graze on, now there is no fodder or water and we can only watch our animals die.

by Hashu, elderly Rabari woman

Centuries ago, the region used to be an island between Gujarat and Sindh. History seems to be repeating itself in Kutch, also spelt Kachchh, a word that means something which intermittently becomes wet and dry.

The 1819 earthquake in the Rann of Kutch – the Thar Desert’s famous salt marsh in the North – made the Indus River change its course and shift into Pakistan. 

Consequently, but also due to the dams built upstream, many rivers have dried up paving the way for today’s water crisis.

The Kutch peninsula, an area of 45,000 square kilometres that pushes out into the Arabian Sea, is virtually still an island, with the Rann’s shallow marsh turning white as it gets submerged during monsoon. 

After the 2001 quake the eastern part of the Kutch fault has been progressively emerging upward. In such a delicate and changing ecosystem, the effects of climate change on rainfall patterns and temperatures are further increasing desertification, land degradation and salinisation.

Heading north through the Banni towards the salt desert, the landscape, dotted with thorny bushes, gets dry and barren. 

A few mud villages of communities are scattered across the desert plains, some of which lie empty and abandoned. The sound of cowbells and the whistle of wind are the only sounds of an otherwise silent landscape. 

“There used to be a lot of grass for our animals to graze on,” said Hashu, a woman from the Rabari community, whose face is sculpted by deep wrinkles. “Now there is no fodder or water and we can only watch our animals die.”

The Rabaris and Maldharis are herder tribes that traditionally moved around the semi-desert regions of the northwest. Before the Partition of British India, they used to graze their cattle across the Sindh in what today is Pakistan. These days, many have settled down and tend to migrate only in times of severe drought. This year the government, with local NGOs, has set up almost 400 cattle camps, nevertheless, the drought has pushed many to move out of the district.

India's Kutch
Hamirsar Lake, around which the town of Bhuj developed, used to be the epicentre of life. Now it is dry and cracked, as of summer 2019 [Andrea de Franciscis/Al Jazeera]

The Banni region was once the largest and finest grassland of the subcontinent. 

It was a unique ecosystem with a long history of migratory pastoralism where different grasses once grew. Today it is where the effects of salinisation are most evident. The muddy soil that forms the Rann’s outer belt, cracked by dryness, is speckled by a thin salt crust. With the increasing desertification of the soil, many farmers and herders had no choice but to migrate. The degradation of the grassland has been also partly due to the introduction of an alien species, Prosopis juliflora.

In Banni, nearly 55 percent of the area is today invaded by Prosopis, a leguminous shrub, locally called gando baval, imported from South America in the 60s, in an attempt to keep desertification and salinisation at bay. “It’s an invasive species that got spread also thanks to goats eating the fruits and disseminating the seeds”, points out Umesh Jadiya, a local naturalist and guide. Prosopis is now all over Kutch district and it is the only green cover of the otherwise arid plains. Poor communities have turned to charcoal production for its wood has a sizeable market. 

“The 60s food security policy implementation plan was focused on agriculture improvement through the building of dams for irrigation,” said GUIDE’S Kumar. “After the dams were built, water decreased dramatically in the region while salinity increased. The salt is due to high temperatures and capillarity, whereas underground water (called ‘old sea’) surfaces and evaporates.”

There are 100 rivers and streams in Kutch, 20 major dams and a series of smaller ones to store the rainy-season runoff and sustain agriculture.

“When the monsoon is scarce we use groundwater for irrigation: 50 years ago the water table was higher, it deepens by 20-30 feet every year,” said a local farmer in his 60s. “We have to drill until 500-700 feet to find water now, the deeper you go, the more salty water you find. In 20 years the table will be dry, small farmers relying on rain and groundwater will perish,” he said, while three herders unloaded a truck of cow dung in his field in exchange of pasture. 

India's Kutch
A family of herders stand in a camp encircled by a fence of dry branches and shrubs used to protect them and their belongings from wild animals at night [Andrea de Franciscis [Al Jazeera]

With a significant population of cows, buffaloes, goats and camels, animal husbandry is the second-largest industry in Kutch. Today the two predominant activities – agriculture and cattle-rearing – are struggling with the effects of prolonged drought or storms, as rainfall patterns have dramatically changed over the last 30 years, adding to the peculiarity of a land that has morphed over the centuries and continues to change. 

In this hostile environment, local communities have proved resilient, adaptive to the changing conditions, also through chains of mutual support among herders and farmers.

A study published by SAGE in 2012 analyses the rural perspectives on climate change in Kutch. The results showed that although most rural respondents had not heard about the scientific concept of climate change, they did notice sharp changes in weather patterns. 

The monsoon rains have finally lashed Gujarat this season. After receiving just 124mm rainfall from June 1 to July 29, Kutch is now brimming with joy, with 58mm of rain in the past two days. 

The Indian Meteorological Department has forecast widespread rainfall across Gujarat in the coming week, a blessing for a region worn out by three years of severe drought.

India's Kutch
A herd of Kankrej cows moves through an area outside Bhuj. Kankrej is a cattle breed native to Gujarat and Rajasthan known for being drought-tolerant [Andrea de Franciscis/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera