The Bendsura reservoir in Beed, Maharashtra, on Apr. 14, 2019. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Even A ‘Near Normal’ Monsoon Can Lead To Water Distress

BloombergQuintOpinion

Immediate attention is needed on not just the absolute amount of rainfall, but also the changes in the pattern of rainfall.

A few weeks ago, the Indian Meteorological Department announced that the monsoon this year would be ‘near normal’. While it sounds like good news, it hides the complexities behind India’s changing climate.

In October last year, I started travelling across the country, writing about the impact of climate change for IndiaSpend. What I learned was that large parts of the country are witnessing changes in rainfall and temperature despite the data showing that the mean rainfall has not changed much. In fact, it is increasing in some states.

One needs to examine this data more closely to make sense of the changes being felt by communities across India. Just looking at the mean rainfall is not enough, according to experts.

The question to ask is – has the distribution of that rainfall changed? If yes, by how much.

Interviews with locals, whether in the Himalayan region or Cherrapunji in Meghalaya, revealed the same story – there are weeks during a monsoon season when there is no rainfall and then days when the rainfall is so heavy that it causes floods. This affects crop production. In the Himalayas, for instance, the erratic snowfall has already affected the yield from the apple orchards.

A man holding an umbrella waits for public transport by the side of a road in Cherrapunji. (Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg) 
A man holding an umbrella waits for public transport by the side of a road in Cherrapunji. (Photographer: Sanjit Das/Bloomberg) 

Scientists will need data over decades to quantify the changes even as communities are already feeling the impact of changing rainfall. Farm yields are declining, and women in many parts of the country are walking several kilometres to fill water as wells are drying up.

First, let’s look at some of the most water-distressed areas in India and the rainfall there to understand the changes better.

Higher But Erratic Rainfall

Satellite image mapping changes in the water surface from 1984 to 2015 shows drying of surface water in coastal Odisha around Bhubaneshwar and the coastal district of Bhadrak.  (Source: NOAH: a tool that maps changes in surface water and rainfall).
Satellite image mapping changes in the water surface from 1984 to 2015 shows drying of surface water in coastal Odisha around Bhubaneshwar and the coastal district of Bhadrak. (Source: NOAH: a tool that maps changes in surface water and rainfall).

Satellite data shows that coastal Odisha is water-stressed, a fact that ground reporting supported. A large number of surface water bodies like rivers, lakes, and ponds have either dried up or seen a decline in the water levels.

However, when one looks at the rainfall pattern, it is clear that rainfall has not decreased. In fact, in several years, the rainfall shows positive deviation from the normal – i.e. it has been higher than average. But what also stands out is how erratic it has become.

The rainfall data from 1978 to 2018 for Odisha shows that in the past two decades the extremes have risen. The peaks in the graph represent times when the rainfall has been above normal while the depression represents below normal rainfall. (Source: NOAH)
The rainfall data from 1978 to 2018 for Odisha shows that in the past two decades the extremes have risen. The peaks in the graph represent times when the rainfall has been above normal while the depression represents below normal rainfall. (Source: NOAH)

Also read: Tanker-Fed Beed Is Struggling To Find Water To Drink    

This erratic rainfall is what the United Nation’s body Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned of, in its October 2018 report. Extreme events like floods and droughts will rise due to this rainfall pattern, according to the report.

For groundwater to be recharged the rainfall needs to be consistent. If it rains too much in a short period, the water will just run off rather than percolating inside, resulting in depletion of groundwater level.

Farmers pointed in interviews that it is not only the amount of rainfall but also the timing that is crucial. Too much in a short span can be as disastrous as no rainfall for the crops.

What is important to understand is that the issue is not just limited to rural areas.

Let’s look at Bengaluru in Karnataka.

Urban Guzzlers

 Several water bodies around Bengaluru have gone dry or reduced considerably in size, according to satellite data. (Source: NOAH)
Several water bodies around Bengaluru have gone dry or reduced considerably in size, according to satellite data. (Source: NOAH)

Several water bodies that were once scattered around Bengaluru have either shrunk in size or completely disappeared, as is evident from the satellite data pictured above. This means that there is little water left in the surrounding areas to supply to the growing and water guzzling urban centre.

A look at the precipitation data for Bengaluru rural has some answers.

The graph shows how much rainfall has deviated from the norm. The rainfall in the past few years has been below normal. (Source: NOAH)
The graph shows how much rainfall has deviated from the norm. The rainfall in the past few years has been below normal. (Source: NOAH)

Also read: 2019 Monsoon: Why India Does Not Declare ‘Droughts’ Any More

The rainfall data for Bengaluru rural areas shows that after 2000, the rainfall pattern has varied between very high and very low. In more recent years, it has been below normal.

Government data supports this finding as well. Water levels in major reservoirs and river basins has fallen by nearly one-third in the past ten years, as reported by Hindustan Times.

Several of these changes – those in sea levels, rainfall, and temperatures – are together making lives unsustainable for communities, pushing up migration.

The rise in Bengali-speaking children in Kannada medium schools of Bengaluru, for example, was traced to rising sea levels in the Sundarban regions of West Bengal, coupled with changing rainfall patterns which are making agriculture difficult in the area.

Public Health Consequences

As more people are forced to rely on groundwater, they are digging deeper and running into mineral-rich water. Fluorosis, a dental and skeletal deformity caused due to excess fluoride content in water, is the most common complaint. Spending three to four hours filling water is a part of a woman’s everyday life in several states leaving them with aching joints. Some women said in interviews that they tried to drink as little water as possible to reduce the number of trips to the hand pumps.

India is yet to even assess the extent of changing rainfall patterns. The country’s first report on climate change, to be authored by experts at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, will be out in the coming months. It is likely to quantify what the farmers have been crying hoarse for long – the rainfall is no longer reliable enough to grow crops.

In the absence of state response, many farmers have begun innovating, as documented by the Indian Institute of Human Settlement, Bangalore, using methods like rainwater harvesting, organic farming and even building their own check dams.

Solving the issue will need a multi-sectoral approach. Understanding that changing rainfall patterns is not just a problem that affects farmers but also impacts water security of the entire country, could be a good starting point.

Disha Shetty is a Columbia Journalism School-IndiaSpend reporting fellow covering climate change.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.