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India: Droughts Declining & Famine Eliminated Despite Global Warming

Vimal Mishra et al., Geophysical Research Letters, January 2019

“Overall, our analysis shows that the frequency and severity of major soil moisture drought periods was greatest before 1924.”

Drought and famine in India, 1870-2016

Vimal Mishra et al., Geophysical Research Letters, January 2019


Millions of people died due to famines in India in the 19th and 20th centuries; however, the relationship of historical famines with drought is complicated and not well understood. Using station-based observations and simulations, we reconstruct soil moisture (agricultural) drought in India for the period 1870-2016. We show that over this century and a half period, India experienced seven major drought periods (1876-1882, 1895-1900, 1908-1924, 1937-1945, 1982-1990, 1997-2004, and 2011-2015) based on severity-area-duration (SAD) analysis of reconstructed soil moisture. Out of six major famines (1873-74, 1876, 1877, 1896-97, 1899, and 1943) that occurred during 1870-2016, five are linked to soil moisture drought, and one (1943) was not. The three most deadly droughts (1877, 1896, and 1899) were linked with the positive phase of El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Five major droughts were not linked with famine, and three of those five non-famine droughts occurred after Indian Independence in 1947. […]

Discussion and conclusions

Limited irrigation (McGinn, 2009) and low crop yields almost certainly combined with soil moisture droughts leading to crop failures and food shortages in the era of British rule. Soil moisture droughts resulted in crop failures that not only affected food availability, but also the livelihood of much of the population, especially given that a transportation system was not in place to ship food from one place to another. Dreze, (1988) reported that British era droughts resulted not only in massive crop failures and food shortages, but also they shattered the rural economy. Among the six famines identified above, 1873 and 1943 provide some important insights. For instance, despite the monsoon failure and drought in 1873 in Bihar and Bengal provinces, there was minimal mortality (Hall-Matthews, 2008). Moreover, human mortality was substantially higher in the other four droughts than in the 1873-74 famine, which can be attributed to policy failures and mismanagement (Davis, 2001; Ferguson, 2004). The 1943 Bengal famine was not caused by drought rather but rather was a result of a complete policy failure during the British era.

A series of famines from 1870 through 1943 killed well over ten million people in India. All but one of the major famines in this period are linked to soil moisture drought. Out of five major droughts that caused famines in India, three were driven by the positive SST anomalies (El Niño) in the tropical Pacific Ocean. India has experienced soil moisture droughts that were as severe as those that accompanied the deadly pre-1900 famines (for instance, 1918 and 1920). The fact that these droughts did not lead to famine deaths appears to be the result mostly of more effective government responses. Despite substantial population growth between 1900 and 2016, famine deaths have been essentially eliminated in modern India. The primary reasons are better food distribution, and buffer food stocks, rural employment generation, transportation, and groundwater-based irrigation (Aiyar, 2012). Rapid depletion of groundwater in northern India (Asoka et al., 2017; Rodell et al., 2009) raises concerns for food and fresh water security in India. Our results showing the linkage between droughts and famine in India have implications for food and fresh water security of the region.

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