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India's drought punishes farmers, highlights challenges to climate change adaptation

India is in the midst of its second drought in four years, with rainfall roughly 20 percent below average nationwide. In the nation's agricultural areas of the west and north -- the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana and Maharashtra, for example -- the situation is far worse. In Punjab -- India's "food basket" -- rainfall is 70 percent below average.

"We know that the rainfall in August will not be able to fill the gap, and the problem is getting really serious," said Harjeet Singh, international climate justice coordinator at ActionAid. "The impacts on the ground in terms of food security are yet to be seen. Unless the government prepares, it could be really tragic."

Three-quarters of India's annual rainfall comes from the summer monsoons that occur between June and September. Once the rains begin, India's farmers sow their summer crops, mainly rice but also oilseed and sugar cane.

The agricultural sector lies at the core of Indian society. Sixty percent of the population works in agriculture, and it accounts for roughly a fifth of the country's gross domestic product.

Poor crop yields could affect domestic food supplies and risk triggering a government ban on farm exports, further rattling international commodity markets, which already have been anticipating lower yields due to the drought across the U.S. Corn Belt.

Early this week, electricity blackouts left more than half of India's 1.2 billion people without power, the largest such outage in world history. The country's electric generation capacity and grid infrastructure are notoriously lacking. But many experts say the drought served as a complicating factor. Less rain meant less hydroelectric power, and farmers turned to electric pumps to tap groundwater supplies and irrigate their rain-deprived pastures.

As damaging as the drought has been, though, scientists and environmental experts warn that it also brings into sharp focus India's long-term vulnerabilities to climate change.

Looking for the drought's cause

The drivers of India's monsoon are often confounding to climate scientists. Projecting the timing and intensity of the rainfall they produce involves significant scientific uncertainties, whether looking decades into the future or even a few weeks.

"It's quite a mystery to people," said Andrew Robertson, a scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University. The best signal that monsoon rains might be particularly weak during a given year, he explained, is warm sea surface temperatures related to an El Niño in the Pacific Ocean. But, he added, even El Niño is a weak signal, and when its conditions are nascent, as they are now, it is very difficult for climatologists to develop a seasonal forecast with a high degree of certainty.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD), which issues seasonal monsoon forecasts, has come under criticism for not expressing these scientific uncertainties in its releases. Writing in The Hindu, R. Ramachandran said that it was possible for one to discern the agency's projections for the possibility of drought conditions appearing in some areas of India. But, he added, the IMD did not adequately explain the complexities of its climate models, which led observers to believe rainfall was projected to be normal.

"If this information is to be continued to be shared with the public, an exercise that began only in 1988, then the IMD must also take efforts to explain the probabilistic nuances of the forecast to the media and the public," he said.

Ramachandran pointed out that monsoon rainfall varies over decades and suggested that the monsoon might currently be in a "below normal" epoch of its naturally occurring variability.

"With climate change, wetter regions may get wetter; dry ones may become drier," Robertson said. "With the monsoon season, some rainfall may be distributed less evenly. We may see larger extremes, more intensity. That's what the models suggest. If you look at the IPCC maps, though, there's a lot of uncertainty. There's not huge droughts being forecast, but there are still grounds for concern."

World's worst stage for water shortage

Even prior to the recent drought, said Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University's Earth Institute, India was the world's "hot spot" for water stress.

Ninety percent of the country's water resources is used in the agricultural sector, he said, often inefficiently, with 10 to 15 percent ending up nourishing crops. Much of the remaining amount ends up on the ground, where it evaporates -- a wasteful outcome given that farmers often pump groundwater from deep below the surface. It is a technique that requires electricity or the use of diesel generators and has caused aquifer levels to drop up to 60 meters in Punjab and nearly 200 meters in Gujarat.

"What we learned in India," he said, "is the whole water and energy problem is dire, and it's caused by government policy."

The so-called green revolution that followed the famines of the 1970s and '80s, he said, led to increased crop yields but came at a high cost to India's natural resources. The government promoted and subsidized the production of water-intensive crops, such as rice, in areas that historically suffer from shortages of rainfall and have been the hardest hit by the current drought.

Punjab is the most egregious example, he said. It receives an average of 40 to 80 centimeters of rainfall per year, but rice cultivation requires 1.8 meters. "Right there you can see there's a problem," he said.

"With the drought, farmers are pumping like mad, using huge amounts of energy," he said, estimating that in some areas energy use has increased 25 percent.

Lall argues that by promoting rice production in areas where rainfall is higher on average and cycling in less water-intensive crops, such as oilseed in the north and west of India, where drought is frequent, the country could maintain or even increase crop yields and at the same time become more resilient to climate extremes.

"You can essentially solve the problem with one piece of legislation," he said. "With that transition we can accomplish water, energy, food and climate risk management."

On a smaller scale, he added, cash payments to farmers who use electricity more efficiently have cut demand. Furthermore, farmers tend to water crops every four or five days. Providing them with soil moisture monitors that help to determine when crops require water has helped to break that routine practice and decreased stress on dwindling groundwater sources.

ActionAid's Singh concurs with Lall that to build the country's capacity to adapt to climate change, the government must take a hard look at the nexus of water and agricultural production.

"In India, we always need to highlight that smallholder farmers, which are the majority in India, are going to be affected by climate extremes," he said. "Public investment in agriculture is crucial. These droughts continue to remind that you have to continue investing in energy there."

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