Monday, August 24, 2009

Little Johnny wants to play – the case of the missing monsoon

Johnny is a young, budding Assamese football enthusiast. The last fifteen have witnessed clear skies and therefore, wonderful playing conditions. Johnny’s happiness is clearly visible as he tackles his opponent defenders and takes repeated successful shots at the goal.

What is making Johnny happy is actually a great cause of worry for the rest of India. So far, there has been a cumulative shortfall of 29% in the rains received due to the southwest monsoon, causing great amount of clamour in the ministry. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, last Thursday set up a group of ministers to chalk out a contingency plan to deal with the situation.
The officials at the Indian Meteorological department all agree on one thing – the situation for the rest of the monsoon is grim. Unless the country received more than 30% more rains than usual, we will inevitably be facing a drought; and a drought spells doom for India in which 90% of the agricultural areas depend on rain for irrigation.
A recent article in the Science Daily (March 2, 2009) mentions a study in Purdue University (original publication Suppression of south Asian summer monsoon precipitation in the 21st century. Geophysical Research Letters, 2009 )which used a climate modelling study to conclude that the South Asian summer monsoon - critical to agriculture in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan - could be weakened and delayed due to rising temperatures in the future. The research team used a high-resolution climate model believed to have the greatest detail currently available for this region. The model projected a delay in the start of monsoon season from five days to 15 days by the end of the 21st century and an overall weakening of the summer monsoon precipitation over South Asia. Moetasim Ashfaq, the author of the study, said increasing temperatures in the future strengthen some aspects of large-scale monsoon circulation but weaken the fine-scale interactions of the land with the moisture in the atmosphere, which could lead to reduced precipitation over the Indian subcontinent.

"It is the more subtle, local-scale processes that are key in this case," he said . "Our model shows a decrease in convective precipitation, which is critical for summer precipitation in this region.”
"In the past when we have seen extremely hot days, we have observed a similar circulation anomaly," Ashfaq said. "These circulation changes decrease moisture flow over the land, and we see longer periods without rain, along with hot conditions."

So what does this imply for India? Is this phenomenon of missing monsoon just an exception to the rule for this year or is is here to stay? If the Purdue study results are to be believed, even partly ,then we should certainly have a reason to worry. Even if this monsoon shortfall is an exception to the rule, we must be prepared to take appropriate measures the next time such an event takes place. Currently, the Agriculture ministry is debating release of food-stocks iinto the open market to stabilise prices. We must realise that in the event such rain shortages do arise in future, we should think beyond price stabilisation and adequacy of food reserves; we must think of sustainability of food production itself. Do we have the ability to adapt to a 29% reduction in monsoon from now on? Can the government invest in irrigation infrastructure in such a short time-span? Another question is: what is the plan of action to be taken? Should we take the monsoon reductions as a given and adapt to these changes by seeking to irrigate our nation by alternative means or is there a way to tackle the root cause of the problem – controlling greenhouse gas emissions? This is an important point of consideration to be made by governments of South Asia. Whether the strategy used is either one of the two or a combination of both, it has to be done on an urgent basis. The Indian economy is till too fragile to be able to withstand monsoon vagaries on a regular basis. Every grain of food produced is of vital importance.

The point is that, the world climate is degenerating continuously, affecting the points of formation of various subtle equilibria that determine annual phenomena like the southwest monsoon, which is just one among many.

Nations had better come up with good solutions to such problems or else, in front of Johnny’s eyes, the rain will go away and might never come again another day.

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