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The monsoon is central to Indian life and lore. It turns up in ancient Sanskrit poetry and in Bollywood films. It shapes the fortunes of millions of farmers who rely on the rains to nourish their fields. It governs what we eat. It even has its own music. Climate change is now messing with the monsoon, making seasonal rains more intense and less predictable. Worse, decades of short-sighted government policies are leaving millions of Indians defenseless in the age of climate disruptions – especially the poor.


Water being water, people settle for what they can find. In a parched village on the eastern plains, they gather around a shallow, fetid stream because that is all there is. In Delhi, they worship in a river they hold sacred, even when it is covered in toxic foam from industrial runoff. In Chennai, where kitchen taps have been dry for months, women sprint downstairs with colorful plastic pots when they hear a water truck screech to a halt on their block. The rains are more erratic today. There is no telling when they might start, nor how late they might stay. In 2019, India experienced its wettest September in a century; more than 1,600 people were killed by floods; and even by the time traditional harvest festivals rolled around in October, parts of the country remained inundated. Even more troubling, extreme rainfall is more common and more extreme. Over the last century, the number of days with very heavy rains has increased, with longer dry spells stretching out in between. Less common are the sure and steady rains that can reliably penetrate the soil. This is ruinous for a country that gets the vast share of its water from the clouds. The problem is especially acute across the largely poor central belt of India, stretching from western Maharashtra State to the Bay of Bengal in the east. According to a recent scientific paper, over the last seventy years, extreme rainfall events in the region have increased threefold, while total annual rainfall has measurably declined. India’s insurance policy against droughts, the Himalayas, is at risk too. The majestic mountains could lose a third of their ice by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at the present rate. But, as scientists are quick to point out, climate change is not the only culprit to blame for India’s water woes. Decades of greed and mismanagement are far more culpable. The lush forests that help to hold the rains continue to be cleared. Developers are given the green light to pave over creeks and lakes. Government subsidies encourage the over-extraction of groundwater. The future is ominous for India’s 1.3 billion people. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, erratic rainfall, combined with rising temperatures, will lower the living standards of nearly half the country’s population. In the words of Raghu Murtugudde, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland (USA), “Global warming has destroyed the concept of the monsoon… We have to throw away the prose and poetry written over millennia and start writing new ones.”

Ref: The New York Times, “India’s Ominous Future: Too little water, or far too much” by Bryan Denton and Somini Sengupta (November 25, 2019)

Sécheresse et déluge en Inde - Bryan Denton pour The New York Times
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Bryan Denton

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