THEGREENGROK    Planetary Watch

Monsoon Fails, India Suffers

by Bill Chameides | August 24th, 2009
posted by Wendy Graber (Researcher)

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Weakened monsoon hasn’t provided relief for much of India. Some regions are experiencing worst drought in close to 100 years.

Failure of the summer monsoon is spelling disaster for 600 million farmers in India.

India has one of the most rapidly developing economies in the world, growing at an annual rate of more than 9 percent in recent years. Even so India is a largely agrarian society with some 600 million or close to 60 percent of its 1.1 billion dependent on agriculture.

Farming in India

To be a farmer anywhere means living at nature’s mercy, but this is especially true in India where survival of the summer crop depends upon the monsoon rains that typically start in southern India in June and sweep across the nation as the summer progresses.  A failure of the monsoon rains brings drought conditions and the threat of withering, failing crops. But the monsoon can be a mixed blessing. If it is too strong, crop-destroying floods can ensue.

Monsoon Failure Spells Rain Deficit

This year’s monsoon has been an appalling bust. Because of subtle changes in tropical circulation related to a phenomenon known as the Madden Julian Oscillation, the monsoon rains have simply not come. A total of 246 of India’s 600 districts have experienced drought conditions. According to India’s Meteorological Department, the cumulative seasonal rainfall in the country as a whole was down by 28 percent as of August 9, 2009, and by more than 40 percent in the northwest. With some regions like Pradesh; Haryana, Chandigarh and Delhi; and Telangana being especially hard hit with the rainfall deficits of 60 percent or more. (Note: Rainfall last week has improved conditions somewhat reducing the overall and northwest deficits to 26 percent and 37 percent, respectively. But rains will have to be 30 percent above normal for the rest of the season to recover from the drought.)

Disaster for India’s Rice Crop

The failure of this year’s monsoon has brought disaster to India’s farming community. In countries like the U.S., access to irrigation and electricity to pump water allows farmers to adapt and muddle through droughts (at least temporarily). This is not the case for most Indian farmers who are at the mercy of the rains. Reportedly, “65 percent of farmers in India rely on rainwater.”

As a result, India’s expecting a 10 to 15 million tons shortfall in rice production. This is some 10 to 15 percent of the 100 million tons of total production forecast for India at the beginning of the season.  This shortfall will be difficult to absorb in India, whose economy depends on domestic agriculture for almost 20 percent of its gross domestic product. According to a BBC report, food prices in drought-stricken India have already risen by 10 percent.  India’s Finance Minister, who described the situation as “grim,” has announced plans to import food to make up for the shortfall.  It’s too early to know whether this domestic shortfall will spillover and impact global prices and demand. India’s projected shortfall represents about 3 percent of the expected global rice harvest of 430 million tons.

The Deadly Outcome

The fallout of the drought goes beyond crop failures and rising food prices to the macabre and tragic. Reportedly, farmers unable to payoff loans taken to buy seed and fertilizer at the beginning of the summer cropping season are committing suicide in the face of economic ruin.

With Profits and Dwindling Water Resources

Other outcomes fall more on the ironic side. As a result of the drought, the sale of irrigation equipment in India is up. One company, the Mumbai-based Jain Irrigation Systems, Ltd reports a 30 to 50 percent increase in sales this year and projects a doubling of profits.  At the same time a new paper by Matthew Rodell et al of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center published in Nature reports that groundwater in India has been declining over the last 6 years at an alarming rate in large part because of unsustainable irrigation practices. Greater reliance on irrigation is unlikely to be a long-term solution to weakness in the monsoon.

More On the Way?

All this plays out against a backdrop of rising greenhouse gas concentrations and a warming planet. I think it is fair to say that no one knows for sure what global warming will mean for India’s monsoon. But I am sure the farmers of India will not be comforted by predictions in Geophysical Research Letters by Moetasim Ashfaq then with the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, Purdue University and colleagues that global warming will suppress precipitation from India’s summer monsoon in the coming century.

filed under: drought, faculty, global warming, nature, Planetary Watch
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