Forget Bollywood songs, the most welcome sound in India is the pitter-patter of the first monsoon rains. If all goes well, oppressive heat gives way to thunderous downpours around early June, unleashing the annual season of rejuvenation that delivers 80% of India’s rainfall in four frantic months. Yet monsoons are erratic, perhaps increasingly so because of climate change. And when they disappoint, food prices soar, the poor go hungry, reservoirs empty and power cuts hamstring businesses. The impact even ripples overseas as commodity markets are starved of Indian sugar and rice. About 800 million of India’s 1.3 billion people count on agriculture for a living, yet less than half of its farmland have access to irrigation. That underlines the dependence on India’s fickle four-month deluge and raises the question: What more should be done to accommodate the vagaries of the monsoon?
The early signs are that this year’s monsoon will escape the effects of a possible El Nino. The 2015 monsoon was the driest in six years because of El Nino and, after a poor monsoon in 2014, left populous states such as Maharashtra ravaged by drought and major cities such as Mumbai rationing water supplies. The run of severely dry years abated last year when overall rainfall was about 3% below the long-term average. That’s considered a “normal” monsoon by official Indian standards. Swollen rivers caused chaos in parts of the country, while farmers in Maharashtra and Gujarat, many of whom had grappled with two years of drought, were forced to drain excess water from fields to protect their crops. Overall, the return of the rains had the desired effect: food grain output surged an estimated 8% to a record. The earlier dry conditions had pushed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to focus government policies on agriculture; his 2016 budget fast-tracked irrigation projects and extended record lending to farmers. Poor monsoons delay planting and produce smaller yields of crops such as rice, corn, sugar cane and oilseeds. That can accelerate food inflation, a key focus for a central bank seeking to lower interest rates and a disaster for the millions mired in poverty.
Monsoon derives from the Arabic word “mausim” meaning season and refers to a seasonal reversal of winds. The unrivalled scale of India’s monsoon is explained by its unique geography: a vast, upside-down triangle of land with ocean on two sides and topped by the world’s tallest mountain range. The crucial summer monsoon begins when hot, dry air trapped over the northern plains by the Himalayas starts drawing in moist, low-pressure fronts from the Indian Ocean. Delays of just days can ruin harvests, so rituals have emerged to implore the rains. A typical monsoon delivers 89cm of rain—50% more than London gets in a year—and severe flooding happens at least once every five years. In neighbouring Bangladesh, it’s an annual occurrence.
India has maintained a goal to be self-sufficient in food while reducing the economy’s dependence on agriculture to 15% of gross domestic product from about half in the 1950s. Cutting its dependence on the monsoon is another matter; constructing new dams faces political hurdles, so Modi is targeting multiple smaller-scale water projects including irrigation ponds and has proposed interlinking rivers to redirect resources to parched areas. Critics say groundwater levels will continue to fall dangerously and droughts will persist unless the agriculture sector, which accounts for 80% of water consumption, starts using water more efficiently. Genetically modified plants suited to droughts might help, as would selecting more appropriate crops than thirsty rice and sugar cane in water-scarce regions. That choice is often a matter of politics rather than common sense, say detractors. Climate change is expected to boost monsoon rainfall, but will also bring more extreme events that exacerbate flooding and drought. With India on course to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation, many see water scarcity as a potential regional flashpoint. Tackling India’s chronic air pollution may be among the most effective policies. Particles in the atmosphere hold moisture longer, which some scientists say could be contributing to a gradual long-term weakening of the monsoon.