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Single drops of water make the mighty economy

Monsoon and climate change in India


09 / 2009

The 2009 Southwest monsoon has finally arrived in many parts of the country—with a vengeance in several places—leading to flash floods and loss of lives. With images of rain and news of reservoirs getting filled up pouring down TV sets, our macro-economists are seemingly clueless about the damage the delayed and deficient monsoon will cause. Agriculture plays a marginal role in the nation’s gdp numbers and so, even if the crops fail, it will not make a dent in the growth rate, they say. Then the stock market is going up, all growth fundamentals are sound. In any case, the revival of the monsoons will help the winter rabi crop as soil moisture and water levels improve in wells and canals. All’s well that ends well?

This is the most shortsighted and uninformed view of the real impact of monsoon failure on a vast number of people, living on the margins of survival. The fact is this year, when the rains failed, water stress was already at a frightening peak in many parts of the country. There was news of how drinking water was not available; how people were guarding and indeed killing to protect their only water sources; how cities did not have adequate water to supply to people—rationing was being talked about and practised in many places. Farmers were already strained because groundwater levels were falling and input costs increasing, putting them at risk. In this situation of near-drought, we have had a massive failure of rains, during the critical summer crop period.

So, we must understand why this temporary rain failure cripples. It forces people to migrate; it pushes them into the clutches of moneylenders as crops fail and this forces them to sell their only means of survival—their livestock. This is the beginning of the spiral of destitution. Drought is not about lack of water or failing crops; it is also about non-availability of fodder. Rebuilding rural economies becomes difficult in this adverse cycle of impoverishment. Each drought destroys the rural community’s ability to cope. It makes it weaker and more disabled to deal with the vagaries of monsoon. Drought is not a temporary phenomenon. It is permanent and long lasting and it eats away at the very insides of the country.

It is for this reason that we must have a long-term plan to deal with monsoon failure and water shortages. The fact is we must also do this when the monsoons are being impacted by climate change. In other words, we no longer have just the natural variability—and that itself was extreme—to deal with in our monsoon. We also have to understand how this natural variability is being accentuated because of anthropogenic (human-made) climate change.

At a recent meeting of South Asian media professionals, B N Goswami, the country’s top monsoon scientist explained what climate change means for monsoon’s present and future dangers. First, their studies show that global warming will make the Indian monsoon even more variable and even less predictable. A recent study, which used daily rainfall data between 1901 and 2004, concluded monsoon has become almost twice as difficult to predict. The implications of this finding are enormous. One, think how this year itself it was not the failure of rainfall that debilitated farmers but the lack of knowledge of what would happen. Farmers bought seeds and invested in sowing, only to see the crops wither. They borrowed, they invested and ended up risking their income. Two, it means India will have to invest big time in improving prediction models and computing power to keep up with the climate change impacts on the monsoon. This is what ‘adaptation’ to and ‘coping’ with climate change will mean.

The second key finding is equally problematic. The question worrying India’s monsoon scientists, explained Goswami, was why the Indian summer rain was not increasing with increased temperature—as predicted in all climate change models. Their analysis found even as the Indian ocean temperature shows increased warming trends, the monsoon rainfall for the past 100 years remains within its inter-annual variability. So, what was the impact of climate change on our monsoon, if any?

The answer should concern us all. Their analysis of rainfall trends over the past half century finds there is significant decreasing trend in the frequency of moderate rainfall events and an increasing frequency of heavy rainfall events—above 100 mm/day. Worse, extremely heavy rainfall events—when it rains more than 150 mm/day—are going up. In other words, rainfall is changing its character—when it rains, it pours. Just think of what this means for our water future—extreme rain, which floods and then flows away. Leaving less useful water for farmers. Leading to less recharge of groundwater. It is important we understand these changes to our future.

It is important because we are at the water-cusp. Our water demand is increasing with increased urbanization and industrial growth. On the other hand, we are adding to wastage and degradation of available water through pollution. Worse, we are wasting precious time dreaming of big irrigation projects, which do get built or fully utilized. We are not focused on what we can do this monsoon and this coming water stress period: hold every drop of water in every tank, pond, forest, watershed and even rooftop in every home, every village and every city. Then make sure you get value for each drop—more crops, more industrial productivity and much less wastage in our homes. It can be done. It is a water agenda for the changing future. It is a water agenda we must not lose sight of—even in the rain.

Key words

water, water storage, climate change

, India


This sheet is also available in French : De simples gouttes d’eau font la puissance de l’économie


Articles and files

Sunita NARAIN, « Single drops of water make the mighty economy », in Down To Earth, Sept 30, 2009.

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