Learning from the drought

Learning from the drought

It is official. The India Meteorological Department said last week that this year’s monsoon was the weakest since 1972. No doubt, it’s been a tough summer for rural India, suffering already from the reverberations of the financial crisis.

But it didn’t stop there. This summer’s drought led to a decrease in farm yields, and subsequently, massive increases in essential food prices. The jury is still out on the cause of the rain shortfall. But the drought serves as a dire harbinger for what India is likely to experience from climate change.

A recent report by the Washington, DC-based International Food Policy Research Institute (Ifpri) explains climate change’s potentially grim effects on India’s agricultural production. Prices will potentially skyrocket for essential commodities such as rice, wheat and maize. Farm yields will drop considerably— even for irrigated crops. While climate change will increase rainfall in India, it will also raise temperatures—and require crops to be fed even more water, according to the report.

This poses serious challenges for the country. To increase crop output, India needs to continue to shift away from rain-fed irrigation, even though irrigated crops will also suffer as temperatures increase. India’s food supply cannot be so dependent on the whims of weather patterns. Climate change projections are still sketches, so while it’s difficult to make definitive statements about India’s future rain patterns, its impact on agricultural yields is sure to be negative.

As a result, India needs to focus on efficient irrigation and also support substitution and adaptation programmes to shift water-intensive crops such as rice away from artificially irrigated areas. But managing this is sure to be difficult as India has badly exploited its groundwater resources.

What is key here is that India does not substitute one unsustainable practice for another. India’s groundwater, for example, is depleting, so moving from rain-fed irrigation to other water sources should not encourage that depletion. But without preparation, climate change will be even worse.

The Ifpri report focuses on investments to increase agricultural productivity. This is important but it is also time that Indian policymakers began factoring in the potentially dangerous effects of climate change on agricultural production.

Will this drought alert India to the dangers of climate change? Tell us at views@livemint.com