Adaptation to Persistent Drought and Groundwater Depletion: Evidence from Karnataka

This study gathers evidence on how farmers in Karnataka adapt and cope with multi-year and persistent drought.

Water stress is becoming a leading constraint on Indian agriculture. Groundwater resources, on which the country’s food production is critically dependent, are being depleted. Meanwhile, rainfall disruptions expected to result from climate change may already be underway, with dry spells and drought events becoming more frequent. The potential impacts of these events are dramatically visible in the semi-arid parts of Karnataka, where a persistent drought over the last 3-4 years, coupled with an extremely rapid depletion of the region’s hard rock aquifers, has left a clear imprint on the area’s conspicuously parched countryside. A multi-year drought is a rare event, more akin to the permanent shifts in precipitation that may result from climate change, and it is likely to gradually erode the effectiveness of traditional income-smoothing mechanisms, even if they are effective in dealing with short-term (annual) weather shocks.
This project, through the use of household surveys and high frequency rainfall data aims to investigate the combined impacts of the present drought and continuing groundwater depletion on income, labor force participation, investments in human capital and migration among rural households in Karnataka. With so few studies examining the impacts of persistent or permanent environmental change on households in developing countries, this study sought to bridge this gap.

This study was conducted in Karnataka, covering 10 districts. The final sample comprised of 1409 households across 103 villages in the selected districts, with an average of 14 households per village. To identify (exogenous) exposure to drought, an examination of fine-scale data provided by the KSNDMC was done. For the sampling, households were identified and grouped into three categories – those have a functioning borewell; those having only a non-functioning borewell; and those who have never dug a borewell. For each village, 5 households were randomly selected from each of the 3 groups to be part of the study sample.

Findings from the study indicate that families with operational borewells possessed the highest household income. Similarly, households with wells reported higher asset ownership. It was also reported that households lacking access to groundwater possess so few assets struggle to make the necessary investments to successfully adapt to climate change. In fact, the lack of groundwater access may lead to a depletion of existing assets and resources as households try to cope with hydrological stress. Results also found that the largest differences between the actual and hypothetical expenditures are seen in food expenditures in households with failed borewells. This suggests that households with failed borewells suffer greater losses during bad monsoons than households with borewells.

Thematic Area

Institutions and Society

Project Leads

Ram Fishman, David Blakeslee