Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why India needs to link Rainfall to Climate Change

Indians have long since felt the effects of the capricious monsoons. However, it is only in the recent years that the predictions of weather departments have gone haywire, with every year ushering in novel situations that have no precedence for study and analysis. While monsoons are getting widely spread over the months June to September since last year, flooding in arid or minimal rainfall zones are becoming increasingly frequent. Does this mean climate change has already affected the weather and rainfall pattern in India? Seems so.

A study released by Purdue University earlier this year has explicitly mentioned that climate change could influence monsoon patterns with reduced summer precipitation, delay in the onset of rains and longer gaps between rainy periods.

As Dr Vibha Dhawan of The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, says,

"We need to accept now that climate change is something that is bound to happen.”

"Not just high temperatures but fluctuating temperatures. Not just drought but also floods."

An expert at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre has attributed the recent South India floods to climate change. The recent flooding in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka is portentuous of the times to come. As climate change accelerates, so will the unpredictability and intensity of the rainfall patterns, as is evident from the 600 % higher than normal rainfall in the driest river basin of the country.

Climate Change, essentially the domino effect of rapid industrialisation, is today a reality. It has already arrived in India A natural upshot of global warming, climate change has been visible in the marked shift in weather patterns in the past few years. Unpredictable monsoons, extreme climate conditions, increase in natural disasters, rise in sea levels and crop failures are some of the obvious impacts of climate change being felt here, besides emerging changes in glacier advances or retreats of the Himalayas.

One may recall the atypical case of Rajasthan, a historically drought-prone and arid State. If the floods of Barmer district in 2006 was a bolt from the blue, the situation in 2007 was worse when Rajasthan witnessed an unprecedented 2 month long flooding in five of its districts. Yet again, in August 2008, incessant rains led to the breach of the Jaswant Sagar Dam.

Contrarily, the North-Eastern States of Assam, whose lush green forests once owed allegiance to heavy downpour almost half the year, have been fraught with dry weather in various regions since 2004, while facing widespread flooding of Brahmaputra and intermittent flash flooding from breaching of embankments.

On the one hand the Himalayan river systems draining into the Ganga river basin are dying out, on the other hand glacier melting has resulted in recurrent flooding of Yamuna and Brahmaputra rivers. It is a disaster, waiting to happen, as the impact will be felt on human survival, agriculture, infrastructure, forest cover, hydel power and the general economy.

Then again, the village of Basahi village in Bihar has become a victim of climate change. Increased run-off from the mountain glaciers in Tibet and Nepal has meant consequent breach of the Budhigandhak river every year. Villagers think fixing the river embankment is the solution. Little do they know that the heavy floods are a visible sign of a climate flux. The monsoons they once welcomed is now viewed with trepidation, as it gets heavier and relentless every successive year.

In particular, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim are facing the heat of climate change the most. The effects of climate transmutation are more pronounced in these mountainous regions because of their fragile ecosystems. The melt-down of glaciers is already flooding river valleys. Flash floods are becoming the order of the day. Paradoxically, the prolonged drought conditions at other times of the year, are giving rise to a serious concern about water management, a hitherto unknown issue in this water-rich region. It is inevitable that such shifts in the environmental and geophysical attribute of this Himalayan region have a non-reversal impact on land-use patterns and crop production.

In such a situation, the continued construction of hydro-electric projects are worsening the imbalances that have already set in.

The livelihood of the people of India and the economy itself, largely depends upon the agriculture, forestry, wetlands and fisheries. The monsoon rains influence the land-usage, which is grossly dependant upon water-based eco-systems. Vagaries of rainfall patterns and changes in water cycle are also directly related to water borne diseases.

All of this indicates the immediate need to redress the problem of unpredictable rainfall and chalk up surrogate options to insure farmers against drought-like or flood conditions. Government needs to work closely with local movements and NGOs to seek possible solutions. While unpredicatability of rainfall needs to be linked to climate change in order to take suitable measures, appropriate water usage policies and regulations are increasingly required. The snail-paced 2 % growth in agricultural sector needs a fillip and impact of such disastrous floods and droughts lessened.

Water usage is extremely important in this traditionally agro-based economy. Otherwise very soon not only is India in danger of losing its capacity as one the highest wheat and rice providers, amongst others, but also pave the way for multinationals tol take over agricultural land from suicide-committing farmers, going the Mexico way !

Posted at INDIA WATER PORTAL at Sangeeta Deogawanka's Blog


  1. Hello Sangeeta,

    Just couple of questions w.r.t the article:

    1. Has the climate change effect on Indian Monsoons been quantified ? I mean are you able to point to a source that goes back through historical precipitation data and pins the blame on post industrial carbon emission / global warming on the issue ?

    2. Quote 'Climate Change, essentially the domino effect of rapid industrialisation, is today a reality.' Is this an expert opinion or merely a play on words? As far as I understand climate change is change in the stats of weather over time, with the appropriate statistical controls applied. If I am wrong, could you please point me to the source of the definition please.

    3. Not gonna be nitpicking here, but you have managed to catalog most of the water related issues in India or more like the water related disasters in India and blamed it on climate change. Given the distribution and occurrence of the issues should we not look closer at water management & disaster management also ?

    4. Also could you elaborate on what imbalances have been aggravated by the construction of hydroelectric plants ? And what is the role of climate change there?

  2. At the outset, thanks so much for your feedback. I am happy to answer your queries.

    The blog title clearly emphasises the need to link rainfall (and change in its patterns) to climate change with respect to India, where historically, changes in rainfall patterns haven’t been analysed., except of late.

    Answering your Qs:
    1 &2. As I am sure you are aware, the effect of climate change on Indian monsoons is yet to be quantified. It is only being acknowledged by the scientific community. The IPCC report had simply put down estimated figures.
    Again, please refer to my quotes within the blog.

    3. Rainfall and monsoons form part of the water related issues in India. They are not the whole picture.
    Of course, floods are not wholly climate change related or always caused by natural factors. Management of water reservoirs and projects play a major role, as much as water & disaster management AND river management, but that needs to be dealt with separately.

    4. Drying up of rivers have already been attributed to the factors of climate change and its variables (amongst others). In such a situation, isn’t it obvious the rampant construction of hydel projects and their mismanagement would result in further ‘imbalances’ like downstream drying up?
    An imbalance can best be exemplified by the in-channel siltation from decreased run-offs post-Damodar project, as seen in the case of Sunderbans deltaic region.
    In an interview with me, Professor S. Hazra (Director of School of Oceanographic Studies) attributed hydel projects as one reason for the multi-front problem plaguing the Sunder bans …..“The reduction in Sundari trees can be attributed partly to increased cyclonic disasters, and partly to starvation of silt and reduction in fresh water as a result of the construction of upstream dams and flow diversions amongst others”