The vast, flat lands that compose much of India depend on waters flowing down from snow melting in the Himalayas. And a reliable influx of moisture in the form of the Southeast Asian Monsoon is a much-needed backstop to the heat and dryness of April, May, and early June.
But the warming of our world through fossil fuel burning and related greenhouse gas emissions is causing the glaciers of the Himalayas to melt. It is causing temperatures during spring to increase — which more rapidly dries the rivers and wells of India’s plains. It is creating a hot, dry atmospheric barrier that increasingly delays the onset of India’s monsoon. And since the 1950s India’s rainfall rates have been decreasing.
(NOAA rainfall anomaly map for the past six months showing a severe deficit for southern India. With April, May, and June being India’s hottest, driest months, and with climate change producing a worsening water security situation for the state, the risk for yet one more serious water crisis emerging over the coming weeks is high. Image source: NOAA CPC.)
All of these effects are related to human-caused climate change. However, what since the mid-20th Century had been a steadily worsening state of affairs has, over recent years, tipped into a more difficult to manage set of events.
During 2015, a delayed monsoon resulted in India receiving about 14 percent less rain than expected. During 2016, severe heatwaves exacerbated a drought that put 330 million people under water rationing. The 2016 monsoons finally halted this severe water crisis. But underlying shortages persisted through March of 2017.
Today, sections of South India in a region with a combined population of about 145 million continue to see severe water stress. The state of Kerala is experiencing its worst drought in over a Century. Tamil Nadu, which slipped into drought on January 10th, now shows all 32 districts reporting water shortages. And in Karnataka, reservoir levels have now dipped below 20 percent as almost all districts were reporting drought conditions. Farmer suicides from these regions remained high throughout the year. And reports indicate that inability to grow staple crops in these regions has resulted in reports of people relying on eating rats for food.
(Sea surface temperature anomaly map by Earth Nullschool. Warm sea surface temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific can help to delay India’s monsoon — extending the hot, dry period of April, May and June. This year, NOAA predicts that a weak to moderate El Nino may form which would further exacerbate climate change driven water stresses in India.)
These are tough conditions. But the worst may be yet to come for 2017.
April, May and June is the hottest, driest period for India. And the state is entering this season with almost a 150 million people already facing water stress. Moreover, the warming of Equatorial waters in the Pacific as another El Nino is again expected to emerge increases the risk that the 2017 monsoon could be delayed or weakened. So with a water crisis now ongoing in the south, conditions are likely set to worsen soon.