A looming drought is manageable. Long-term changes to the monsoon might be catastrophic
THE dizzying midday heat of India’s northern plains cracks the earth. Farmers slump on the charpoys on which they sleep outdoors. It should be raining, yet the sky is clear. Prithi Singh, lean and wrinkled, says his entire rice crop has withered, along with fields sown for fodder.
After two summers of erratic and delayed monsoons, this year the rains simply failed. Mr Singh cannot afford to pay for a borehole, generator and diesel to reach ever-diminishing groundwater. Farmers always grumble. But Mr Singh has lost half of his annual income of 50,000 rupees ($890) and now depends upon his crop of winter wheat. Another farmer nearby fears he must sell his land to pay accumulated debts to moneylenders.
The monsoon months, June to September, bring three-quarters of India’s annual rainfall. Official studies show it to be erratic in four out of every ten years. Yet farmers rarely get any useful warning of shortfalls. As recently as late June, India’s meteorologists were predicting a normal monsoon. Punjab and Haryana, two north-western agricultural states, now say rains are about 70% below average. Six western states have issued drought warnings. The government in Delhi says it may soon offer emergency help.
The country remains predominantly rural: over 600m out of 1.24 billion Indians rely directly on farming. Nearly two-thirds of Indian fields are fed only by rain. A one-off drought is tolerable. Rural job-creation schemes have lifted incomes for the poorest. Food prices have only started to creep up. Granaries are overflowing, thanks to recent bumper crops.
What is disturbing, though, are tentative signs of long-term change to the summer rains. A less stable monsoon pattern would be harder to predict. It would arrive late more often, yield less water, become more sporadic, or dump rain in shorter, more destructive bursts (which happened two years ago in Pakistan, where the Indus basin disastrously flooded). The concerns of experts about the monsoon long predate today’s dry spell.
Too little is known about summer weather systems on the subcontinent. India is short of observation stations, weather planes, satellites, climate scientists and modellers. The government and foreign donors are scrambling to make amends. But even with better data, monsoons are ill-understood once they leave the sea or low-lying land. At altitude, notably, for instance, approaching the Himalayas, it is far trickier to grasp just how factors such as wind direction, air pressure, latent heating and moisture levels interact to deliver monsoon rains.