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Impact of climate change on arid regions in India

Centre for Education and Documentation

08 / 2010

India is one of the most drought prone countries in the world. Over 75% of the cropped area is in the semi-arid tropics in the country (131 million out of 174 million ha). Ninety-nine districts in 14 states are declared as drought prone districts by the Central Water Commission (2002). Most of them are concentrated in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Rajasthan, affecting 265 million people in the rural areas.

Low and erratic rainfall coupled with extreme temperatures and intense solar radiation makes these regions the most vulnerable regions in India  (1).

Water sources in the arid and semi-arid regions

Water is scarce in these regions. The groundwater tables and rainfall are low, and the water run-off is high. Annual rainfall is between 100 and 400 mm or 400 and 800 mm.

The northern arid regions, comprising largely of the desert of Rajasthan, the Rann of Kutch and the semi-arid regions of Punjab and Gujarat, are entirely dependent on groundwater and above-the-ground tanks, ponds, other traditional stores of water. No rivers flow through these regions. The Southern peninsula, however, is fed by the peninsular rivers, mainly fed through groundwater discharges and supplemented by monsoon rains.

The main source of water throughout the year for these regions is through small and medium stored water. In many areas, the tank is the only water source to store rainwater (2). There are around 120,000 small-scale tanks, irrigating about 4.12 million ha., mostly in the semi-arid Southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

Livelihood & Risk-coping Strategies

The arid and semi-arid regions face serious challenges due to lack of sufficient food security and/ or economic opportunity for the many people who live there.

Low productivity of lands and small land holdings have led to disguised unemployment, increasing the vulnerability of the region. Under current agricultural practices, many dryland farmers are unable to earn a year-round livelihood. For the pastoralists or the goat/cattle keepers water-scarcity, feed-scarcity, disease in animals, etc. are some of the major problems. Reducing pasturelands and common grazing lands create further pressure on the land.

Rural people often rely on a combination of rain-fed agriculture, livestock rearing and other income generating activities to sustain themselves. Families also create buffer stock of crops or liquid assets, and they use credit as means for survival during the lean times.

People are less able to insure themselves against aggregate shocks. Adverse weather, in the form of prolonged dry-spells or delayed have considerable negative effects on the harvest yield and impact the lives of the people much harder. These are shocks that affect everyone in the local environment and are therefore harder to diversify locally.


It would not be possible to talk of the arid and semi-arid regions without talking about migration. Keeping to the nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyles of people in the region, migration in its many forms and patterns – seasonal/distress, rural-to-rural, rural-to-urban – is common. The earnings from migration play a vital role in providing sustenance for the poor, and migration becomes a strategy for survival and livelihood, sometimes the dominant one.

Migration happens to other irrigated areas where agricultural wage labour is available or to the urban areas where employment is available - in wage labour (building/construction sector, canal and dam work, road-laying cable-laying, etc.), self-employment by artisans and skilled workers (building construction activities as masons, statue makers, mechanics, drivers, etc.) and contract employment (watchmen, servants and petty-jobs in business establishments and offices, etc.) (3).

In a study conducted in Andhra Pradesh by Priya Deshinger, Overseas Development Institute (4), 66% of the migrants were from remote, dry regions and they could get 55% returns from migration. Twenty-four percent of migration was from semi-arid regions connected to cities and they got a return of 22%. Very little migration took place from regions which were irrigated (8-10%) with a return of less than 10%. The least migration was from regions which were close to cities. Migration has thus been necessary for communities in arid regions to survive.

Bio-diversity & food security

Climate variability has been, and continues to be, the principal source of fluctuations in food production, particularly in the semi-arid tropics. In conjunction with other physical, social and political-economic factors, climate variability contribute to vulnerability to economic loss, hunger, famine and dislocation.

Bio-diversity and food security are directly related. An inter-cropped, traditional variety of crop has much more chances of surviving a bad and erratic monsoon and allows the farmer to be secure in basic food needs. Crop diversification and intercropping systems are a means to reduce the risk of crop failure due to adverse weather events, crop pest or insect attacks.

Morduch (5) presents evidence that households whose consumption levels are close to subsistence devote a larger share of land to safer, traditional varieties of rice and castor than to riskier, high-yielding varieties and spatially diversify their plots to reduce the impact of weather shocks that vary by location.

However, the deep concern is the trends that are taking place. Seed banks of traditional, hardy crops are slowly disappearing and giving way to monocropping of cash crops like groundnut, sunflower, etc. And a failure of one monocropped, high-yielding hybrid crop, could destroy the farmer and push them into debt. This has been evident in the many farmer suicides in central India where recovery from crop failures has been impossible (see infra the case-study).

Impact of Climate Change

Arid regions are expected to undergo significant climate changes, but there is considerable variability and uncertainty in these estimates between different scenarios. The complexities of precipitation changes, vegetation–climate feedbacks and direct physiological effects of CO2 on vegetation present particular challenges for climate change modeling of arid regions.

According to Mr. R.K.Pachauri from IPCC, the potential for drier conditions in arid and semi-arid regions is very high, leading to severe water shortages and leave the incomes of the vulnerable populations much lower and increase the absolute number of people at risk of hunger. He also emphasized the vulnerability of certain regions that will be double exposed to dangers of climate change and globalization. For eg. Karnataka will face water scarcity, the vulnerability being exacerbated by contract farming and cash cropping for exports.

Expected precipitation changes

A trend of increasing monsoon seasonal rainfall has been found along the west coast, northern Andhra Pradesh and northwestern India (+10% to +12% of the normal over the 100 years) while a trend of decreasing monsoon seasonal rainfall has been observed over eastern Madhya Pradesh, north-eastern India, and some parts of Gujarat and Kerala (–6% to –8% of the normal the 100 years).

Concentration of droughts is projected in Gujarat and Rajasthan, which are already drought-prone, and in Orissa, which is currently flood-prone.

Food security & Migration

Non-climate stressors are already affecting agrarian populations in the dryland regions. These will be further exacerbated by climate change effects. The population increase will further increase fragmentation of landholding. Reduced agricultural productivity due to rainfall and temperature changes will get exacerbated by fragmentation effects.

Decrease in precipitation, water scarcity, will further decline land productivity. This decrease will result in less food being produced. Food security will lead to more migration leading to loss of manpower to work on agricultural lands.

The already overflowing cities, would find it very difficult to cope with such influx of people from the rural areas. This will lead to all the stresses that the urban areas are likely to face due to climate change.

Pastoral Groups

According to the paper “Climate Change and Drylands” by International Institute for Environmental Development, pastoral groups that manage significant proportions of national livestock herds are particularly vulnerable to climate change. The paper indicates that the predicted changes in rainfall patterns will result in increasingly scarce, scattered and unpredictable pastures, resulting in access to pastures becoming more difficult, leading loss of livestock and of livelihoods. The number, distribution and productivity of permanent pastures and water points, which are so critical for livestock survival during the dry season, are bound to decline. Scarcer resources, coupled with current levels of demographic growth, are likely to lead to stronger competition and conflict between pastoral communities and between other groups.

In the longer term, pastoralists are likely to further diversify their livelihoods, both within the pastoral system (i.e. increasing reliance on more drought-resistant species such as camels) and out of livestock production. Over time, pastoral groups will shift out of drier areas that are no longer viable, to zones that are more humid and have more predictable rainfall patterns. Existing land tenure arrangements and services in these areas will come under increased strain, exacerbating relations between communities and fuelling conflict.

Dangers of wrong policies on already vulnerable areas: the case of Anantapur District, Andhra Pradesh

Anantapur district in the state of Andhra Pradesh receives rainfall around 500 mm annually. The distribution of rainfall varies considerably from year to year and season to season. Prior to the 1960s, rainfed farming was primarily for meeting home consumption requirements of the farmer and demands of the local market for food and fodder. Minor millets was grown as the main crop in most areas. In small patches either pigeonpea, castor, sorghum or groundnut were grown as the main crops; whereas groundnut was used primarily as a condiment, oil was also produced using traditional bullock powered mills.

This complex cropping system had evolved over a long period and hence was presumably tailored to the climate variability of the region. The last three decades witnessed major changes in the cropping pattern as well as in the technological options. The variety of groundnut cultivated in the 1960s and early 1970s was a traditional runner variety, which required about 150 days for maturity. The variety TMV-2 was introduced in the region during the early 1970s. Gradually by the late 1970s, the bunch type had replaced the runner type completely. At present, groundnut (variety TMV -2) is the major crop cultivated in the rain-fed regions of the Anantapur District.

Such extensive monocropping of groundnut has emerged only in the last two decades. Hence farmers do not as yet have adequate experience of the impact of climate variability on different facets of crop growth, development and yield. The frequent droughts already cause drastic fall in the groundnut yield. During these times, the income level of farmers, particularly resource poor farmers, goes down and the debt levels due to high investment causes severe distress. Crop specialisation of this type in a low and variable rainfall region increases vulnerability of the farmers to droughts in the long run.


Development in the drylands depends on addressing degradation of the ecosystem, mainstreaming sustainable natural resources management and building upon the existing adaptive capacities of people and institutions. Actions tried in the past have not produced the expected results leading to international and national institutions choosing to invest in other ecosystems, considered better investments (the Indian ‘green revolution’ ignored dryland areas). Climate change will further challenge the livelihoods of those living in these sensitive ecosystems and may result in higher levels of resource scarcity.

It is thus necessary to ensure economic access to food, have contingency crop/fodder/drinking water plans, crop stabilization and watershed development programs, community based natural resource management practice, organic farming to increase land productivity, revitalization of traditional crops and practices to ensure food security, and revitalization of traditional breeds of livestock.

(2) See V. ANBUMOZHI et al., “Towards improved performance of irrigation tanks in semi-arid regions of India: modernization opportunities and challenges”
(3) See Chandan K. SAMAL, « Remittances And Sustainable Livelihoods In Semi-Arid Areas », in Asia-Pacific Development Journal,Vol. 13, No. 2, Dec 2006
(4) See Priya DESHINGKAR, “Migration Of Labour In India: Distress, Accumulation & Policy Lessons”, Overseas Development Institute
(5) See J. MORDUCH,‘Income Smoothing and Consumption Smoothing’, in Journal of Economic Perspectives vol. 9(3), 1995

Palabras claves

sequía, agricultura, agricultura y medio ambiente, cambio climático

, India


India and climate change


This article is available in French: Les conséquences du changement climatique sur les régions arides en Inde

Further readings:

  • Ashish KOTHARI, “Agro-Biodiversity The Future Of India’s Agriculture”, in Indian Explorations in Sustainable Development, 2008

  • Ritu KUMAR, Climate Change and India: Impacts, Policy Responses and a Framework for EU-India Cooperation, TERI Europe, 2008

  • Chandan K. SAMAL, “Remittances And Sustainable Livelihoods In Semi-Arid Areas”, in Asia-Pacific Development Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, December 2006

  • Helene BIE LILLEOR et al., Weather Insurance in Semi-Arid India, 2005

  • A. Arivudai NAMBI, « Vulnerability Assessment & Enhancing Adaptive Capacity to Climate Change in Semi-Arid Areas in India », Discussion Paper, MS Swaminathan Foundation, September 2004

  • A.R. SUBBIAH, « Establishing common ground to bring together disaster reduction and climate change communities-Challenges and opportunities », presentation at UNDP experts group meeting on Integrating Disaster Reduction and Adaptation to Climate Change, La Havane, 17-19 June 2002

  • J. MORDUCH, ‘Income Smoothing and Consumption Smoothing’, in Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 9(3), 1995


Texto original

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