It’s anomaly reigning

Feature story - June 24, 2009
No doubt the monsoons are changing with the altering weather patterns. There is growing evidence suggesting that climate change is playing a significant role in altering the Indian monsoon patterns. What is not clear is how the precipitation patterns will change. What is clear, however, is that the intensity and frequency of storms and spells of rain and drought are becoming commonplace. This has dire implications, especially for the economy of a rapidly growing developing nation such as ours. Historically, we have not contributed to the problem of climate change, yet, quite clearly, India has much to lose from inaction. The only way out is to take positive steps to mitigate climate change.

The 'Green Idol' ballot box containing signed petitions urging for a Renewable Energy Law[Mumbai]. The petitions will be forwarded to the MPs of the respective constituencies.

Officially speaking, the Indian monsoons have set in. Going by the Indian Meteorological Department's (IMD) own timelines, Kerala received its first showers a week earlier than usual. The early onset does not, of course, imply it is a good monsoon, but it's welcome. Last year's scanty precipitation left even an otherwise wet state of Kerala comparatively parched. 

What really is 'normal'?

Going by a recent report, "the IMD predicted that the monsoon rainfall across the country this year (2009) would be four per cent below the long-term average, with an error bar of plus or minus five percentage points." And that an error up to 10 per cent of the long-term average is 'normal'. 

But then again, what really is 'normal'? Quite clearly, without having reached anywhere close to the 10 per cent threshold, which in any event is an enormous deviation, changing monsoon patterns in the last decade alone, have wrecked havoc across the Indian subcontinent.

Case in point

In 2006, Cherapunji, the wettest place on the planet received considerably lower amounts of rainfall, whereas states such as Rajasthan known to be relatively dry were inundated (by its standards) causing calamity and chaos, taking lives, leaving behind disease and what have you. The deluge in Mumbai in July 2005 is another classic case, of the loss of lives and property and business loss running into crores. 

Cyclone Aila that hit the Bangladesh and the Sunderbans region killing hundreds and leaving over 24,000 people homeless and stranded in its wake and destroying large tracts one of the most pristine mangrove-rich tiger territory, just about a week ago, is just another case in point.

Surely and steadily, anomaly is becoming the norm. The intensity and frequency of freak spells of rain and drought, cyclones and storms are becoming commonplace. And with every passing year, matters are only going to get worse. In response, Greenpeace pointed out that these alterations are going to become a 'normal' feature. Science increasingly suggests that climate change is going to change the pattern of the Indian monsoon. 

Climate change and Indian monsoon

On assessing the historical data, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its fourth Assessment Report suggested that "warming in India is likely to be above the average for South Asia, with an increase in summer precipitation and an increase in the frequency of intense precipitation in some parts." That the Indian monsoons are going to undergo gross changes as a direct result of climate change - rainfall will increase by ~ 20 per cent overall in the summer monsoon, but the distribution of this increase will not be evenly spread across the country.

The extent to which these monsoonal patterns change is a function of global changes in climate. Climate change is likely to lead to a stronger but more variable monsoon until 2100.  Thereafter, with the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and its effects on temperatures in the North Atlantic, and in turn, the pattern of the North Atlantic Ocean circulation, the grip on the monsoon will weaken. But that is nine decades away. What is imminent and looming at large are the dire consequences of a climate changed monsoon.

True that traditionally, India has not contributed to the problem of climate change, we are facing today. Yet, we have too much to lose from inaction. 

Monsoons and the economy

Today, close to two thirds of humanity live within regions influenced by the Asian monsoon and depend on the water that it brings to support agriculture, and to supply potable water. And the Indian subcontinent lies close to the centre of the monsoonal region. 

Despite the gradual shift away from agriculture, India is still largely an agrarian state. Agriculture still accounts for a third of India's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Essentially implying, we depend on the monsoons for our produce and largely, our exports (70 per cent in terms of value). 

Going by figures presented in the recent Greenpeace paper Monsoon

Wager: Climate Change and the Indian Monsoon, a rural population of 700 million is directly dependent on climate sensitive sectors and resources. Given that India is reeling under the pressure of such a high population, with limited agricultural lands and water resources, any changes in monsoon patterns would jeopardise development patterns completely. It can indisputably stated, then that, if these variations continue 'normal' (by IMD's definition) or otherwise, it would irreversibly damage the country's economy and food security. 

Let's not wait for the 11th hour

It's not a question anymore. Regardless of whether India has contributed to climate change or how much or how little of it is responsible for, it will bear the brunt of it consequences. We stand much to lose from this global phenomenon unless we take quick, long steps to arrest climate change, now. 

There is no doubt that we are a developing nation, and that we have millions of people living in poverty, seeking basic facilities - access to water, electricity, medical facilities. All the same, we cannot afford to take the trodden path to achieve this development. What we need to do instead is use this as an opportunity and develop alternate strategies to reach the end goal - development. 

Quit coal, adopt renewables

It's not about how much energy we produce, but how we produce it! Past experience clearly indicates that coal is not the answer. Not digging up new pits, not importing it from elsewhere… Coal is dirty, it's exhaustible and comes with a baggage of socio-economic and environmental costs. 

Renewables on the other hand, are an extant technology, but they are not currently cost effective. What is implicit is that they are renewable, in addition to the fact that they are clean and reliable. And most importantly, they can be harnessed today. As a minimum, India must have a Rewewable Energy Law - workable, measurable and set to achieve certain targets, in place. And to achieve this, India must continue to pressurise nations of the north to aid countries such as ours. Simultaneously, India has to take urgent measures to curtail carbon emissions - by phasing out our dependence on coal, adopting renewable forms of energy such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass. 

India is going to suffer from the impacts of a climate changed monsoon and the life giving rains could well become the life taking rains, and it would be imprudent to be twiddling our thumbs rather than take the necessary steps to mitigate climate change. We just can't afford it. 

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