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TWN Info Service on Climate Change (May14/01)
8 May 2014
Third World Network  

The monsoon conundrum in India
Published in SUNS #7799 dated 8 May 2014
 
New Delhi, 7 May (Indrajit Bose) -- While the political fate of India will be unraveled on 16 May 2014 at the general election, several crucial weather-related issues that will have a bearing on the growth paradigm of the country remain at stake.
 
Increasing weather variability, erratic monsoon and climate change will make growth targets and fulfilment of election manifestos of political parties doubly difficult to achieve.
 
Inclusive and sustainable development, alongside envisaging economic growth, figures in the manifestos of nearly all the major political parties in the election fray - Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
 
Some political parties included importance of rainwater harvesting and water conservation in their manifestos; others promised to take measures to arrest glacial melt.
 
Either way, irrespective of the party that wins, it is quite clear that there will be roadblocks in implementing their plans, especially with India regularly experiencing extreme and freak weather events.
 
In February and March this year, un-seasonal rainfall along with hailstorm played havoc with farmers' lives in six Indian states - Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh.
 
Unprecedented as it was, the event lasted 20 days and it came just as farmers were preparing to harvest crops. More than a hundred farmers reportedly committed suicide due to debt-related worries.
 
In 2013 too, India experienced weather events that covered the entire spectrum ranging from major floods, cyclones to droughts, leading to considerable loss in lives, livelihood and wealth.
 
The country felt the significant impact of floods in Uttarakhand, a hill state in northern India; a succession of cyclones hit the eastern coasts, particularly in Andhra Pradesh; and intense episodes of rainfall in typically dry/arid regions caught communities unawares leaving them unprepared for the scale of loss and damage that they were subjected to.
 
Such events serve as precedents to what India is about to experience in the near future and it's not good news on that front.
 
Warning Bell

A recently released report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued dire consequences for India as a result of climate change. The report outlined that risks of climate change are intensifying and that the lives of the world's poor are at stake. India becomes especially vulnerable since it houses 33 per cent of the world's poorest people.
 
The Working Group II of the IPCC, in its report released in March 2013, has projected the following for India:
 
Over India, the increase in the number of monsoon break days and the decline in the number of monsoon depressions are consistent with the overall decrease in seasonal mean rainfall.
 
* All models and scenarios project an increase in both the mean and extreme precipitation in the Indian summer monsoon.
 
* In a study of the Mahanadi River Basin in India, a water availability projection indicated increasing possibility of floods in September but increasing water scarcity in April. In the Ganges, an increase in river runoff could offset the large increases in water demand due to population growth in a +4 degrees C world, due to a projected large increase in average rainfall, although high uncertainties remain at the seasonal scale.
 
* Freshwater resource will be influenced by changes in rainfall variability, snowmelt or glacier retreat in the river catchment, and evapotranspiration, which are associated with climate change. Unsustainable consumption of groundwater for irrigation and other uses is considered to be the main cause of groundwater depletion in the Indian states of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana.
 
* In India, a model projected changes in more than a third of the forest area by 2100, mostly from deciduous to evergreen forest in response to increasing rainfall, although fragmentation and other human pressures are expected to slow these changes.
 
* By 2100, large areas of tropical and subtropical lowland Asia are projected to experience combinations of temperature and rainfall outside the current global range, under a variety of model projections and emission scenarios, but the potential impacts of these novel conditions on biodiversity are largely unknown.
 
* A changing climate has been projected to reduce monsoon sorghum grain yield in India by 2-14 per cent by 2020, with worsening yields by 2050 and 2080.
 
* In the Indo-Gangetic Plains, a large reduction in wheat yields is projected, unless appropriate cultivars and crop management practices are adopted. A systematic review and meta-analysis of data in 52 original publications projected mean changes in yield by the 2050s across South Asia of 16 per cent for maize and 11 per cent for sorghum.
 
* With rising temperatures, the process of rice development accelerates and reduces the duration for growth.
 
* In terms of risks of increasing heat stress, there are parts of Asia where current temperatures are already approaching critical levels during the susceptible stages of the rice plant. These include: Pakistan/North India (October), South India (April, August), East India/Bangladesh (March-June), Myanmar/Thailand/Laos /Cambodia (March-June), Vietnam (April/August), Philippines (April/June), Indonesia (August) and China (July/August).
 
* In India, the Indo-Gangetic Plains are under threat of a significant reduction in wheat yields. This area produces 90 million tons of wheat grain annually (about 14-15 per cent of global wheat production).
 
* Flood risk and associated human and material losses are heavily concentrated in India, Bangladesh, and China.
 
* On the east coast of India, clusters of districts with poor infrastructure and demographic development are also the regions of maximum vulnerability. Hence, extreme events are expected to be more catastrophic in nature for the people living in these districts.
 
The IPCC report has also said that floods and drought are likely to increase in India, since there will be a decline in seasonal rainfall, coupled with increase in extreme precipitation during monsoon. Also, freshwater resources will be affected due to a combination of climate change and unsustainable practices.
 
Projections on agriculture especially are stark. The IPCC report pegs over US$7 billion loss in agriculture in India by 2030. Heat stress, rising temperature and erratic monsoon will contribute substantially to this loss.
 
In India, agriculture is the backbone of livelihood security of over half the country's population and nearly 60 per cent of agriculture is rain-fed - farmers are dependent on the rains to grow crops. Erratic monsoon or any change in the monsoon pattern therefore has huge consequences for the country in terms of ensuring food security.
 
A study by a team of Stanford University researchers in California, USA, further substantiates this. The study evaluated how wet and dry spells have changed between 1951-1980 and 1981-2011. The findings are worrying, given India's plans of inclusive and sustainable development.
 
How have monsoons changed in India?
 
The study found that there has been a decrease in rainfall in the peak monsoon season; variability in daily rainfall has increased; wet spells have become more intense; and dry spells occur more frequently.
 
"There are fewer total number of rain days in the monsoon season, and the amount of rainfall on these days is highly variable. This leads to an overall decrease in the mean rainfall in these months (July-August) but an increase in the day-to-day fluctuations in the amount of rainfall," said Deepti Singh of Stanford University's Department of Environmental Earth System Science, who is also the co-author of the study published online in Nature Climate Change on 28 April.
 
Why are such changes happening? Are they following the natural scheme of things, or can the findings be linked to climate change?
 
Singh does not dispute the climate change link. The findings of the study are consistent with previous projections of the hydrological cycle with increased global warming, she says.
 
"Although we still need a separate attribution study of these observed changes to natural and anthropogenic sources, our results suggest that we are already seeing significant changes similar to what are expected in response to increased greenhouse gas warming," Singh told Third World Network.
 
Besides, some of the changes in circulation patterns in the study also matched those expected to occur with increased global warming.
 
The only caveat Singh issues is that since multiple factors such as greenhouse gases, aerosols and land use changes interact with the monsoon differently, one must carefully evaluate the influence of each of these factors to make more accurate projections for the forthcoming decades.
 
The impact of changes in monsoons will be telling on rain-fed agriculture, crops, livestock, livelihoods and food security, the study warns.
 
"As central India encompasses several river basins that contain high population densities and large areas of crop cultivation, rainfall extremes over this region have a particularly strong influence on agriculture and water management," reads the study, which assessed the South Asian summer monsoon over central India, comprising Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, parts of Uttar Pradesh and eastern Rajasthan.
 
To add to the grim scenario, the Indian Meteorological Department has predicted less-than-average monsoon for the year 2014, and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has also said that below-normal rainfall is most likely during the 2014 summer monsoon season (June to September) over South Asia as a whole.
 
One of the reasons for this, said the WMO statement, is the possibility of an El Nino, a phenomenon where the Pacific warms due to increased sea surface temperature. El Nino conditions during the monsoon season are known to weaken the South Asian summer monsoon circulation and adversely impact rainfall over the region.
 
Given such uncertainties and erratic weather, no matter who wins the 2014 general election in India, erratic monsoon will continue to play havoc with people's lives unless anticipatory steps are taken to ensure food and livelihood security for the people of the country, especially its poor population. +

 


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