Erratic monsoons cast long shadow over India’s economic heartlands

A late-arriving monsoon has hammered India's agricultural output and affected global food supply chains. It has also revealed how vulnerable India is to climate risk.

A flood affected resident in India.
A flood affected resident in India. Mawsynram, the world’s wettest place located in north-eastern India, recorded the highest single day of rainfall in more than half a century on 17 June. Image: Biju Boro via The Third Pole

Every summer, thousands of Hindu pilgrims trek through miles of snow in Indian Kashmir to pay homage to a natural ice formation believed to be the embodiment of God Shiva called Baba Amarnath, but even veteran devotees were caught unawares when a cloud burst swept the mouth of the cave shrine on 10 July.

Sixteen people have died and 40 are missing in the unprecedented disaster, which scientists have attributed to global warming. The impact of climate change is now being felt across the South Asian sub-continent’s most important season, the annual monsoon that brings 70 per cent of rains. 

Indian kings once erected palaces to watch the dark clouds sweep across the horizon during the June-September season and the country’s most famous poet, Kalidas, wrote an epic romance Meghaduta in tribute to them. But erratic monsoons are now emerging as one of the country’s biggest policy headaches.    

Mawsynram, the world’s wettest place located in north-eastern India, recorded the highest single day of rainfall in more than half a century on 17 June, even as large tracts of northern-western and central provinces have been battling drought-like conditions that affected the summer seed-sowing season.

Until a couple of decade ago, such weather extremes were uncommon and rainfall distribution across the four-month season was far more even. But weather disasters are now occurring regularly and the rainy season’s onset in different provinces has become more unpredictable, making it tough for farmers to plan when to sow their crops.  

India’s total volume of rains during the four-month monsoon is expected to be in line with a historic long period average for a fourth year this year, according to the state-run India Meteorological Department. But experts now question the weather department’s description of “normal monsoon” because of the uneven spread of rains that have characterised the monsoon season of late.

Normal monsoon turns abnormal 

“The definition (of normal monsoon) hides a lot of variations that are emerging which have serious implications. If the rains are not equitably distributed, then it creates droughts and floods. In either case, it’s not good for agriculture,” said Sunil Sinha, principal economist at India Ratings, a credit rating agency,

India’s poor planning to cope with the shifting course of monsoon has been compounded by rampant urbanisation that has blocked traditional water channels in towns and cities, further compounding the weather’s impact, he says. 

Although India has announced an ambitious target to produce around half of the country’s electricity from non-fossil fuel sources to combat climate change, the country has lagged behind in efforts to better prepare rural communities to adapt their livelihoods. 

The implications of erratic monsoon patterns are significant as India is the world’s largest exporter of rice and the bulk of the water-guzzling crop is sown in the summer season. India recently imposed a wheat export ban that sent prices spiralling globally 

Other important crops such as oilseed and cotton are also planted during the monsoon season as over 40 per cent of the country’s crop sowing area is rain-dependent. Lack of adequate advance information about changing weather patterns is prompting farmers to switch to hardier cash crops from traditional food varieties.  

The weather extremes that have played out half-way into this year’s monsoon have resulted in a 24 per cent decline in the sowing area of the main summer crop rice compared to last year, as well as a 13.7 per cent drop for other cereals. The planting area for oilseeds has also declined, by 20.3 per cent, and for sugarcane and cotton by 0.5 per cent and 0.2 per cent, respectively. 

If sowing activity does not pick up dramatically over the next few weeks, it will significantly hurt India’s economy and affect global food supply chains.

The uncertainty over agricultural production comes at a time when India’s food price inflation is likely to top 9 per cent in the second half of 2022 on the back of higher feedstock costs due to the Russia-Ukraine war and higher assured prices of crops provided by the Indian government to farmers, according to a report by Nomura, a financial services firm.

Climate experts blame policymakers for the country’s inadequate preparedness for monsoon’s fluctuations. 

The Council for Energy Environment and Water (CEEW) estimates that India could have saved $89.7 billion over the last two decades if the country was better prepared for climate changel. Around 75 per cent of Indian districts—an administrative sub division of the country’s geographical area—are extreme climate event hotspots, says CEEW. 

It estimates that a 1 per cent decrease in monsoon rainfall can lead to a 0.34 per cent drop in the country’s agriculture dependent economy. This is because the impact of a weak monsoon season is not limited to agriculture alone and can shave off 13 per cent of the country’s electricity generation, as India’s hydropower output is affected.

“Each district should have a disaster management plan that is annually updated, but unfortunately none of the zones [a large administrative area comprising several districts] have a high capacity to adapt to weather disasters such as floods, droughts, cyclones and thunder storms, said Abinash Mohanty, programme lead for risks and aaptation at CEEW. 

He urged authorities to install technological systems that can help improve provinces to predict and prepare for extreme weather events. 

“This will only happen when we provide granular climate information that can inform a farmer of the impact it will have on crops and the steps that need to be taken in the short, medium and long term,” said Mohanty. 

The state-run Indian Meteorological Department has been accurate in predicting rainfall over the short to medium term, but has fallen short on long term predictions, according to experts. 

Staving off a food crisis  

India produced a record 303 million tonnes of food grain in 2021 and has vast buffer stocks that helped authorities to distribute highly-subsidised food to the needy during the pandemic. But the South Asian country, which is set to be the world’s most populous by next year, needs to plan ahead to cope with intensifying climate impacts. 

The biggest fear that scientists have is “what will happen to India’s food security in the years to come,” said Davinder Singh, an agriculture trade policy analyst during a recent webinar. “The (Russia-Ukraine) war has shown that the world cannot be dependent on global supply chains.” 

According to a report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, the number of people affected by hunger globally rose to 828 million in 2021, up 18 per cent, or 150 million people since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

In addition, an all-time high of up to 49 million people in 46 countries are at risk of succumbing to famine or famine-like conditions including parts of Africa and Afghanistan. 

India needs better ways of implementing climate change policies to stave off a future food crisis, say experts. 

“We need a separate ministry for climate change,” said Anjal Prakash, research director at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, a thinktank. Decisions to cope with climate change are taken by one of 20 administrative divisions of the federal Indian government’s Ministry of Environment.  

“The new-age information and skills that are required to combat climate change are just not there at the moment,” said Prakash. “The problem is so huge and the response of the government is miniscule and fragmented. There are enough policies, but the information is not reaching people,” he said. 

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