india drought monsoon
A Shepard on the dry bed of Manjara Dam in the Indian state of Maharashtra (Image: AP/Manish Swarup)

After several weeks of teasing Mumbai with scattered showers, India’s monsoon finally hit with a vengeance last Friday. Within hours, cars and the constant horn-honking conga-line of trademark black and yellow motorised rickshaws were ploughing through rapidly rising waters. The city’s roads, notoriously traffic clogged at the best of times, resembled half-submerged car parks. 

At King Edward Memorial Hospital in the northern business district of Parel — a sprawling crumbling campus emblematic of the tatty stripped down services in the public health system — patients were forced to wade through 20cm-high water to get through the front gate and navigate additional ponds if venturing further afield.

The monsoon and the water it brings is at the epicentre of the country’s survival, being responsible for about 70% of India’s annual rainfall. 

Despite all the water dumped across southern India over the weekend, the world’s second largest population and sixth biggest economy remains ravaged by drought. In the third week of June, official figures showed 46% of India was in drought. The country is facing a water crisis unparalleled in human history.

Major cities including the deep south’s major metropolis Chennai and technology hub Bangalore are all but out of water.  A 2018 report by government think tank NITI Aayog predicts the same future for another 20 major cities within 20 years, including the capital Delhi. It’s a catastrophe that the think tank says will affect 600 million people. Yet all but only three states, a follow-up report found, have paid any attention. 

The recent rains were particularly welcome in Mumbai, the capital of the state of Maharashtra that has been one of the worst hit by this year’s drought.

There are reports of entire villages being abandoned: residents flocking to already overcrowded cities, people walking for miles to queue for buckets of water, and livestock and crops being destroyed by dehydration. To make matters worse, states are battling over water and India itself is embroiled in fights over water resources with Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This year’s monsoon has been particularly late — just the latest sign that climate change is making the annual opening of the heavens increasingly unpredictable, and not just in India. It is the third major drought across significant parts of the country in four years and follows a significant drought only 12 months ago.

June rainfall figures released over the weekend underscore how slowly the monsoon is coming to its expected rescue with only a 33% rainfall deficit (compared to 118 year averages). Forecasters say this now means there is a 90% chance that July, India’s wettest month, would fall short, opening the way to an overall monsoon deficit for the third time in a decade.

Exacerbating India’s rapidly escalating water problem has been mismanagement of water resources, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi revealing last week that a pitiful 8% of India’s annual rainfall is captured. Yet critics say a landmark change in water policies after his 2015 election has only exacerbated this problem; the Modi government changed course from a long-term holistic plan of water conservation widely endorsed by water management experts to focus on more stop-gap solutions of farm irrigation.

Inadequate water reserves, supercharged by what is threatening to become a permanent state of dry season drought, has led to an alarming acceleration of farmers tapping into the earth’s natural underground water reserves. This has seen a dramatic lowering of the water table, with Resources Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat telling parliament last week that groundwater levels in 52% of monitored wells around the country were lower in 2018 than for the average over the preceding decade.

Not nearly enough has been done to shift farmers from water thirsty but high yielding crops such as rice, sugar cane and cotton. Moreover, farmers are increasingly taking their own lives, with over 20,000 suicides recorded since 2001. 

The 2019 monsoon may have begun at last, but this year’s outlook continues to look bleak. “The precipitation outlook until September is within normal for most of India, with wetter than usual conditions foreseen in the central and eastern country, while to a lesser extent in the western and southern regions,” NGO Reliefweb noted. Despite this, “it is very unlikely that the multiannual cumulated deficits will be compensated by the incoming monsoon season”. 

The increasing regularity and intensity of drought in India should not surprise Australians, who see the same thing happening around this country. But it is crimping an economy that continues to rise in importance to Australia; a 2018 report from former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief Peter Varghese squarely targets India to be Australia’s number three trading partner by 2035 behind China and Japan. 

As Australia’s economy is increasingly linked to Asia’s big three economies, their fortunes will be felt here as we have already seen with China. It’s not so much about demand for mineral and metal resources (which will continue to rise in India for the foreseeable future) but about the fortunes of Australia’s tourism sector, ever hostage to middle-class discretionary spending and the international education market.

India’s newly re-elected government knows it has a monumental problem, and it has promised action. But it has offered few answers so far. And while India is far from the only country facing an existential water crisis, it is the biggest nation where the threat looms closest. If serious answers are not explored immediately, there is real chance of a human and economic catastrophe that will rock the globe. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey