Over the sizzling north Indian plains this year, the summer rains arrived in mid-June, early by 13 days. They should not have. The respite quickly turned into a deadly rage, as flooding devastated the Himalayan region. In Uttarakhand, swollen rivers barreled down gorges and valleys, taking down entire towns and killing an estimated 1,000 people.
On Delhi’s outskirts, sitting on a charpoy, farmer Ramesh Singh marvels at the early rains, which will nourish his paddy field. But statistics show the monsoon has been increasingly erratic — in about four out of every 10 years. Often, it has stalled mid-way, wringing farms dry. At times, short heavy spells have wreaked havoc, like the flash floods in Leh just three years ago.
Forecasting the rains, which account for three-quarters of India’s annual rainfall, is becoming tougher. Last year, six states had to declare droughts, despite predictions of a normal monsoon.
Although India is honing its prediction techniques, including joint Indo-American forecasting under a bilateral agreement, too little is understood about how pollution and rising temperatures are impacting the monsoon. But impacting they are, new research shows.
“Our studies show the Indian Ocean has significantly warmed in 50 years — by about 0.6°C. Monsoon has been declining in the Western Ghats, and interior areas such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh by about 6-7%,” R Krishnan, a top climatologist at the premier Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, told HT.
Experts also point to a “significant rise” in monsoon breaks during a season.
“Although the frequency of extreme rainfall events ha increased in certain parts of the country, it is the decreasing trend in moderate-to-heavy monsoon rainfall events that poses an enormous long-term concern for one of the most densely populated regions of the world that depends heavily on the monsoonal rains,” the authors, including Krishnan, wrote in the journal Climate Dynamics.
A vicious cycle has also come to light. A weakening monsoon circulation has quickened the “warming of the equatorial India Ocean” and this warming, in turn, has contributed to a “further weakening of the monsoon”. The new findings portend problems India isn’t currently prepared to address. Experts say India would have to redouble efforts to make its farms climate-resilient.
A changing monsoon could raise food prices and risk livelihoods. Yet another published study, by Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the University of California, San Diego, notes that climate change has “evidently already negatively affected India’s hundreds of millions of rice producers and consumers”. India’s rice yield would have been 1.7% higher if monsoon characteristics had not changed since 1960, the study states.
Less rainfall will cause farmers to use more groundwater, depleting it further. India has woken up to the challenges, setting up the National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture.
Breakthroughs, such as identifying some heat-resistant wheat varieties, are too small to make any impact. For now, the achievement is limited to a timely recognition of the problem.