State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


India: the Impact of the 2009 Monsoon Failure

This article is the second in a series inspired by the recent Columbia Water Center trip to India

During our recent CWC trip to India (during the first three weeks of August) one news story dominated all others: this year’s near total failure of the monsoon.  Many of us in the West don’t really understand what a monsoon is, or why it is important, but if you’re a farmer in India, particularly a poor one, the monsoon is a central feature of your life.

Rice paddy in India
Rice paddy in India

Technically, a monsoon refers to a system of winds, but it is generally associated with the extremely heavy, seasonal rainfall and thunderstorms that result from a shift in these winds.  India is probably the world’s best known monsoon region, but there are numerous others, including the American Southwest.  Arizona and other desert states have monsoonal circulations, and experience heavy rainfall during July and August.

In India, though, the monsoon is particularly powerful, and regions of the country experience exceedingly dramatic, and often violent, rainfall during the summer months.  The monsoon is also critically important in India because of the country’s dependence on agriculture.  Agriculture accounts for 18% of GDP, but employs 60% of Indians.  In simplest terms, agriculture needs water, and in India much of this water traditionally comes from the monsoon.  This year, the monsoon rains have been significantly lower than normal, resulting in huge problems for the farmers who rely on these rains.

In reality though, it’s not easy to sort out the exact effects of the monsoon failure. For example, on our recent trip we spent some time in Punjab state, one of India’s prime rice-growing regions. Rice is an extremely water-intensive crop and I had heard about the monsoon’s devastating effects on agriculture throughout India. Therefore, I was surprised to see verdant green rice paddy in almost every direction. The reason? Punjab farmers primarily rely on groundwater irrigation, and are thus protected from seasonal variations in rainfall. In fact, these farmers might actually realize a higher price for their rice this year since other, rain-fed rice crops have been decimated. On the other hand, the poor monsoon rains have caused Punjabi farmers to pump much more water than they normally would, leading both to high energy costs and lower reliability of energy, as well as concerns over the long-term sustainability of rice production.

Monsoon rain in India
Monsoon rain in India

However, at least these farmers have by and large been spared the immediate effects of the monsoon failure. As often happens, those who are already living on the edge stand to lose the most. The more marginal farmers, and especially those who use only rainwater for irrigation, face huge losses. The poor harvest means many smallholders will be unable to repay their debts, leading further into a cycle of poverty. Tragically, one of India’s most haunting phenomenons, farmer suicide, appears to be on the rise as farmers seek the only way they can find out of this cycle.

On the individual level, the monsoon failure has probably wrecked countless lives, and it appears that it has caused damage on the national scale too. Just recently, the government of India has announced a slowing in economic growth at least in part due to the monsoon. Additionally, fears of inflation are on the rise, in light of the high government spending attempting to offset the monsoon failure.

Many people have been quick to associate the failing monsoon with climate change, but the causal relationship here is not entirely clear, and may actually be more complex than realized. Regardless of whether this year’s e monsoon failure was caused by climate change or is part of a cyclical pattern, it seems likely that India will have more poor monsoon years ahead.  While similar patterns have occurred in the past, what is different now is the population is so enormous and is pushing against resource limitations.   Add monsoon failure to this precarious balance and you have a catastrophe waiting to happen. It will behoove all of us to understand the importance of the monsoon to a huge portion of the world’s population. Additionally, the challenge is to devise strategies for reducing reliance on rainfall which are both environmentally sustainable and economically viable.

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