Preparing for a changing monsoon

Business Standard, 4 September 2023

The monsoon is a complex phenomenon of great importance to India. With global warming, such patterns are likely to change. One part of the evolution of the monsoon is clear: when the world is warmer, more water evaporates from the seas, and finds it way back to the earth in the form of rain. Roughly speaking, when the global average temperature goes up by 1 C the aggregate global rainfall goes up by about 7%. The state of scientific knowledge on the monsoon is, however, limited. The temporal and spatial patterns of the monsoon in a warmer world are not known today.

Without global warming in the picture, there were fluctuations in the monsoon every year. As observers of this process, we have to be careful in drawing the line between ordinary fluctuations versus forming a sense about deeper changes. One rainy day is likely to be about just weather and not climate. But over long time periods, a careful mind or formal statistical techniques can divine certain changes. The elderly have clear recollections about the thumb rules about the monsoon of old, and are able to see that things have changed.

What kinds of changes are we seeing? Certain changes in the temporal pattern are likely to have arisen: (a) delayed onset, and (b) prolonged dry spells punctuated by short periods of extreme rainfall. These problems are generating a more frequent incidence of floods and droughts. Depending on how the surface runoff takes place, rainfall that is concentrated in a few days would induce reduced groundwater recharge.

These changes are exerting an impact upon agriculture. A mere delayed onset can be addressed by sowing late. But the temperature experience of the crop is then a bit different from what was considered optimal. Dry spells create greater difficulties in rain-fed agriculture, and days of extreme rain can also harm the plants. In the short term, farming households may stay in place, but for many of them, these changes can induce an adverse impact upon mean income and income volatility. The measurement of these problems is an important frontier in thinking about food security.

A related problem is that of a changing spatial pattern. There is some early evidence that the average rainfall is higher in some regions (Upper Himalaya, Pensinsular India) and lower in others (Western Ghats, Indo-Gangetic Plain, some parts of central India).

These changes have major implications for farming households. The present configuration of rural population density, and the established methods of working the land, are all based on the old patterns of the monsoon. Perpetuating those ways in a changing world will induce misery. Much more agility in the methods of farming is called for. Profitability of the old ways will degrade, and new ideas will be required on how best to operate under changing conditions.

Some may call for a big bureaucratic response, where ideas on how to work the land are developed by government scientists, disseminated through government agricultural extension, and an enlarged PDS buys up all the output of farmers. In a more balanced view, the Indian state is likely to fare poorly at all these three problems: (a) Watching each district, understanding changing climate, and devising the optimal modifications to the methods optimally used in agriculture; (b) Transmitting knowledge into the relevant persons engaged in entrepreneurship or labour supply in farming and (c) The commercial activities of sourcing, transportation and storage of a wide variety of foodstuff.

In the old world, there was a strong argument for more economic freedom in agriculture, with the scaling down of the five government interventions : inputs, outputs, storage, transportation and international trade. Climate change amplifies the gains from such agricultural reform as only the market system (the "price system") can be nimble, and rapidly respond in a decentralised way to the changing possibilities for farming in each district. In the market system, facts about production and demand are summarised by the price, prices are instantly communicated everywhere, and each producer looks at multiple prices to work out her own optimal pathway.

The carrying capacity of the land is shaped by irrigation, water table and the possibilities for rain-fed agriculture. When monsoon patterns change, the possibilities for each district will change. This will result in large changes in the price of agricultural land. Large-scale migration will be optimal for many regions, but this will require a well functioning land market so that it becomes possible to sell land in an old place, relocate to a new place and buy land there.

We in India are on shifting ground owing to climate change in many dimensions -- heat waves, monsoon changes, rising sea waters, cyclones. In most aspects, the models give us a qualitative sense but not precise estimates about how the system will change. A first port of call lies in establishing observatories which will amass evidence and engage in monitoring.

Thinkers in India have long shrugged when faced with the question of global warming, claiming that this problem was not made in India and hence India should not have to be part of solving it. This `climate justice' view may be partly fair, but it is not in India's best interests. There are substantial adverse impacts in India, from problems such as sea level rising, disrupted monsoon patterns, flooding events and enhanced incidence of cyclones, etc. These adverse impacts give India a direct skin in the game, with gains for India from Indian decarbonisation.

If we were (say) Sri Lanka, then local decarbonisation would make a negligible difference for global warming. But India is the third largest emittor of CO2, which makes Indian choices on decarbonisation material for shaping global CO2 levels and thus the extent of global warming. If Indian capital in foreign policy is devoted to decarbonisation, this can become a material way in which to build the global coalition which will move faster on eliminating emissions. These moves -- to reduce Indian emissions directly and to use Indian diplomatic clout to push other countries to reduce emissions faster -- add up to material gains for people of India in a warming world.

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