India's Monsoon

Quenching a Nation's Thirst

By | Updated Oct 5, 2016 8:45 AM UTC

Forget Bollywood's classic songs, the most welcome sound in India is the pitter-patter of the first monsoon rains. If all goes well, oppressive heat gives way to thunderous downpours around early June, unleashing the annual season of rejuvenation that delivers 80 percent of India's rainfall in four frantic months. Yet monsoons are erratic, perhaps increasingly so because of climate change. And when they disappoint, food prices soar, the poor go hungry, reservoirs empty and power cuts hamstring businesses. The impact even ripples overseas as commodity markets are starved of Indian sugar and rice. About 800 million of India's 1.3 billion people count on agriculture for a living, yet less than half of its farmland has access to irrigation. That underlines the dependence on India's fickle four-month deluge and raises the question: What more should be done to accommodate the vagaries of the monsoon?

THE SITUATION

El Nino saddled India with the driest monsoon in six years in 2015 after another poor showing in 2014, leaving populous states like Maharashtra ravaged by drought and major cities such as Mumbai rationing water supplies. Yet the run of severely dry years finally abated, with overall rainfall in 2016 only about 3 percent below the long-term average. That's considered a "normal" monsoon by official Indian standards. Even so, swollen rivers caused chaos in parts of the country, while farmers in Maharashtra and Gujarat states had to drain excess water from fields to protect their crops. The drought had pushed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to switch the emphasis of government policies to agriculture from urbanization and manufacturing. His budget in February fast-tracked irrigation projects and provided crop insurance and record lending to farmers. Poor monsoons delay planting and produce smaller yields of crops such as rice, wheat, sugar cane and oilseeds. That can accelerate food inflation, a key focus for a central bank seeking to lower interest rates and a disaster for the millions of Indians mired in poverty. As a result of the more giving monsoon of 2016, the government set a record target for the next grain harvest while reservoir levels were boosted by more than one-fifth.

THE BACKGROUND

Monsoon derives from the Arabic word ``mausim'' meaning season and refers to a seasonal reversal of winds. The unrivaled scale of India's monsoon is explained by its unique geography: a vast, upside-down triangle of land with ocean on two sides and topped by the world's tallest mountain range. The crucial summer monsoon begins when hot, dry air trapped over the northern plains by the Himalayas starts drawing in moist, low-pressure fronts from the Indian Ocean. Delays of just days can ruin harvests, so rituals have emerged to implore the rains, from frog and donkey weddings to mud baths and prayers to the rain god Indra. A typical monsoon delivers 89 centimeters (35 inches) of rain -- 50 percent more than London gets in a year -- and severe flooding happens at least once every five years. In neighboring Bangladesh, it's an annual occurrence.

THE ARGUMENT

India has maintained a goal to be self-sufficient in food while reducing the economy's dependence on agriculture to 15 percent of GDP from about half in the 1950s. Cutting its dependence on the monsoon is another matter; constructing new dams faces political hurdles, so Modi is targeting multiple smaller-scale water projects including irrigation ponds and has proposed interlinking rivers to redirect resources to parched areas. Critics say groundwater levels will continue to fall dangerously and droughts will persist unless the agriculture sector, which accounts for 80 percent of water consumption, starts using water more efficiently. Genetically modified plants suited to droughts might help, as would selecting more appropriate crops than thirsty rice and sugar cane in water-scarce regions. That choice is often a matter of politics rather than common sense, detractors say. Climate change is expected to boost monsoon rainfall, but will also bring more extreme events that exacerbate flooding and drought. With India on course to overtake China as the world's most populous nation, many see water scarcity as a potential regional flashpoint. Tackling India's chronic air pollution may be among the most effective policies. Particles in the atmosphere hold moisture longer, which some scientists say could be contributing to a gradual long-term weakening of the monsoon.

THE REFERENCE SHELF

  • An Intergovernmental Conference on Climate Change's report says of India's monsoon: ``All models and all scenarios project an increase in both the mean and extreme precipitation."
  • Bloomberg News explored the proliferation of irrigation ponds.
  • Photo galleries from National Geographic, the BBC, and Time.
  • India's Meteorological Department FAQ on the monsoon.
  • The Hindu newspaper reports on a Stanford University paper that concludes monsoon weather is becoming more extreme.
  • Monsoon ragas are songs or instrumentals composed to encourage or welcome the rains. YouTube has a selection.
  • Writer Alexander Frater chronicled his journey across India in Chasing the Monsoon.
  • QuickTakes on El Nino and climate change.

First published April 26, 2016

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Thomas Kutty Abraham in Lower Parel, Mumbai at tabraham4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Grant Clark at gclark@bloomberg.net