This morning, as I flipped through the sixty plus television channels available in Lucknow, I came across a news item reporting the damage to crops here in India being wrought by “unusual” weather. The problem is not just that this year happens to have a strong “La Nina” current in the Pacific and that is affecting weather globally, but that this year’s problems are part of a pattern that has developed over recent years.
The dry season in India normally runs from about September to around July. The exact duration depends on the year, and the timing of the beginning and end varies across the country. In the past few years heavy rainstorms have punctuated the dry season causing devastation to crops and flooding. In the last few days we have had several such storms here in Lucknow, but a few weeks ago the most severely devastated area was Kerala, south India, where some nine people reportedly perished.
In Kerala the state government was forced to compensate farmers for the loss of their crops to the tune of millions of rupees. This wet spell also impacted the wildlife in the region. Within a week of the storms I visited Kerala to sample the forests there as part of the CLAMP development research. While in the extensive natural forests that make up the the Periyar Tiger Reserve I noticed that, as I walked, the forest floor around me appeared to ripple as if it were water.
Closer inspection revealed that the movement was due to thousands of small frogs undergoing a migration from the river where they spent their tadpole stage to higher land. Normally this migration occurs at the beginning of the monsoon season and saves the frogs from being washed away as the rivers rise. In the constant wetness of the monsoon season the frogs are able to survive away from the rivers.
Whole populations of migrating frogs face death due to unseasonal rains
Now however the migrating frogs are faced with mass mortality because the monsoon has not started and their premature migration is taking them to dry uplands where the lack of water will kill them.
In contrast, too much water is a killer elsewhere. In Bihar state, northeastern India, rapid fluctuations in the flow of the river Ganges has led to flooding and the death of many people who farm the floodplain. These violent fluctuations have been attributed to loss of the snow pack and glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet, coupled with heavy downpours on the Gangetic plains. For the poor, malnutrition and disease follow loss of crops
As I have said before in these blogs, increased dry season precipitation and more erratic monsoon rains are exactly what we could expect from a warming on the Tibetan Plateau. It is likely that the future will bring more of the same weather-related problems.
If the “La Nina” event in the Pacific is linked to inconvenient spring weather in the UK and elsewhere, India faces more serious problems. Climate change is already devastating what is often marginal farming activity, but farming that is crucial to India’s ability to adequately feed its 1 billion (and rising) population.
Here there are demonstrations against food price inflation. This inflation is stoked by global demand for basic grain stocks: a demand amplified by the use of crops, or farmland they are grown, on for biofuel production. I fear that this is only the beginning of global unrest resulting from climate change. India is taking the issue of climate change and all its consequences seriously, and has just announced the establishment of a national climate change centre in Chennai (Madras) so that it can prepare for an uncertain future.