I find myself, again, traveling in India during the hottest months of the year. Here in Delhi, the heat and the humidity is so high that it feels as if a hot wet towel is thrown over my face every time I step outside. At first, I supposed this was because I was not use to the 115 degrees F weather and upwards of 80% humidity that made it feel as if the whole country had become a large sauna. However, with the late onset of the monsoon rains, Delhites alike have been struggling with the hot weather, too.
As many people seek refuge under air conditioning and fan units, utility operators and the government are faced with a challenge to meet these peak energy demands. And with forecasts, released from the Indian Meteorological Department last week that there is a strong likelihood that India will experience a weak monsoon this summer there is concern that drought conditions may exist in the upcoming year.
The delay in the onset of the monsoon rain comes as a particular challenge in rural areas, where farmers are were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the monsoon last week so that they can sow their seeds. The late onset and the potential for a weak monsoon have raised concerns that agricultural yields may drop due to inadequate water availability. Less water in this monsoon would not only impact kharif (autumn harvest) crops, which tend to be primarily rain fed, but also presents an issue for rabi (spring harvest) crops that depend on the summer monsoon rain to replenish groundwater reserves. Although rain fed farmers are disproportionately disfavored in this drought situation, farmers that have access to irrigation are also likely to experience difficulties as they continue to depend on already depleted groundwater reservoirs in many parts of the country. If drought conditions persist throughout the year, farmers will have to draw more water from underground reserves to compensate for scant rainfall, causing energy demands on the electric grid to increase, since a large majority of the irrigation pumps in India are electrified.
Last week, the Indian government devised a contingency plan to deal with the event of a below-average monsoon season. The plan includes diesel subsidies for farmers with diesel pumps, however, electric pump users will be left to their own devices. Other action items in the contingency plan include crops loans at a lower rate, and the release of food grains from government food security silos to stabilize the market. There is little concern amongst government officials that people will go hungry, since food grain surpluses are currently more than double the national threshold for securing food. For urban dwellers and government officials there is increasing concerns that low agricultural productivity is more likely to harm the economy and cause food prices to soar.
However, it is important to note that a decrease in agricultural yields, poses a significant threat to the large number of households who depend on agriculture as a livelihood to sustain food and secure an income. With 50% of the Indian population dependent on agriculture as a livelihood – a staggering 600,000 million people (!)– there is still a challenge of preventing malnutrition, particularly in children up to ages 2, where a lack of essential nutrients during these formative years can create life-long stunting. Ensuring that subsistence-farming households receive the necessary aid to procure nutritious fruits and vegetables during times of drought, not only calorie-rich cereal grains, still remains a challenge.
But – what’s even more disconcerting about the prediction for a weak monsoon this year is that it may be related to more global trends in climate change. Forecasts of a weak monsoon have been monitored by looking at the formation of El Niño events in the Pacific Ocean. Although El Niño events have not always resulted in severe droughts, there is a strong correlation between drought years in India and El Niño events.
El Niño conditions occur when convective heating moves away from Southeast Asia towards the center of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Convective heat are essentially the water engines for the monsoon, and when the convective heating moves away from Southeast Asia to the center of the Pacific, it reduces the amount of rain that can fall in the monsoon. Current heating over the Pacific and the formation of an El Niño event have been observed, but there is a chance that it could arrive this September and not induce a weak Indian monsoon.
The El Niño Southern Oscillation is not a new phenomenon and is a natural climatic variation that exists on inter-annual timespans, but there is some reason to be concerned. As global temperatures rise, some scientists are that are beginning to see more evidence towards more El Niño events, which could mean a increasing trend towards more drought conditions over South Asia. This will not only affect water availability, but also create a significant challenge for meeting food needs for the vast majority of human inhabitants that live there.
In my last post, I discussed the interconnections between the extreme weather events in North America and Europe this past year, and their link to warming over the Pacific and potentially the Arctic. A scientific paper by Wara et al (2005) published in Science magazine, found sustained El Niño conditions in the Pacific during the early Pliocene (~4.5 to 3.0 million years ago). The Pliocene is the most recent time from today with a climate warmer than today, and that show evidence El Niño playing a large role in determining global temperature. If this is truly the case, then we need more research of the impact how we better adapt to reduction in water availability for billions of inhabitants that depend on the monsoon for food production.