Drought is a major constraint to rice production in Asia, where at least 20% of the total rice area is drought prone. When rice is grown under rainfed conditions, both the area sown and the yield depend mainly on the available rainfall; any shortage in rains translates directly into production losses. Although most other natural disasters, such as floods and cyclones, result in visible and immediate loss of life and infrastructure, the effects of drought are creeping and long-lasting. It cripples the livelihoods of a large number of people, often trapping them in perpetual poverty. Even without the extremes of starvation and death, drought is a major economic and social burden that slows economic growth and makes escape from poverty enormously difficult.
A powerful example of drought’s impact on rice production is seen in the zigzag trend in rice yields in Orissa, one of the major drought-prone states of eastern India (Figure 1). Almost every upward movement in rice yields is followed by major down-swings, most of which are caused by drought. Orissa experiences drought once every three or four years and often in consecutive years. It is the severity and frequency of drought that largely account for the slow growth in rice production in Orissa over time, and similar patterns are seen in other drought-prone areas in eastern India.
Drought results in production loss not only of rice and other crops grown with rice, but also of subsequent nonrice crops that require the rice fields’ residual soil moisture. The value of production loss resulting from drought is indeed very large. In three states of eastern India—Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Orissa—where rainfed rice is grown widely, the average production loss of rice during drought years is estimated to be 5.4 million tons—over 30% of the annual production in nondrought years (see Dreams beyond drought on pages 14-21 of Rice Today Vol. 4 No. 2). In severe drought years, the loss can rise to as high as 40–50% of normal production. When production losses of rice and nonrice crops are considered together with the costs farmers bear by adjusting their production system to try to cope with drought, the total annual economic loss in these three states alone is close to US$400 million.
And, as opportunities for farm employment dry up in the face of drought, so too do the incomes of farm laborers who rely on rice production for their wages. It is estimated that in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Orissa, almost 13 million people who sit perilously just above the poverty line fall back below it due to drought-induced income loss. Others already below the poverty line in nondrought years are pushed further down. Figure 2 illustrates this effect in Jharkhand. If drought occurs in consecutive years, the situation is even worse. As farmers go into debt and liquidate their productive as-sets—such as bullocks, farm implements, and even land—they are trapped even deeper within a poverty from which escape becomes more and more difficult.
How can farmers avoid drought’s worst effects? Improved technologies, such as drought-tolerant rice varieties, are important for reducing the grinding economic burden of drought. Such varieties are being developed, along with crop management options that improve plant recovery from drought and more efficiently use available water resources. Substantial scientific progress has been made on this front (see Drought – what is IRRI doing? on page 20 of Rice Today Vol. 4 No. 2). However, investment in agricultural research in almost every rice-growing country in Asia is too low given the benefits in poverty reduction that can be realized. Increased research investment, together with policy reforms that help raise and stabilize farm incomes, can substantially boost the prospects of eliminating the worst effects of this scourge of nature.
Sushil Pandey is deputy head, IRRI Social Sciences Division.
Humnath Bhandari is a postdoctoral fellow at the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences. This article is based on a report by the authors prepared in collaboration with D Naik (Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology), R Sharan (Ranchi University), and SK Taunk and ASRAS Sastri (Indira Gandhi Agriculture University).