Calcutta Notebook


Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his resolve to help Island Countries of the Pacific Ocean face climate change. The melting of glaciers due to global warming is expected to lead to an increase in the level of water in oceans. This will lead to some islands completely being submerged into the ocean. Modi is also slated to join hands with President Obama on the issue of global warming during his coming visit to the United States. These steps taken by Modi are no doubt timely. But there is a much more urgent problem lurking in the backyard that needs attention much before the global action plan is worked out.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that global warming will increase numbers of extreme climate event such as floods, droughts and cyclones. The rainfall pattern is likely to become more variable too. Few days of intense rain followed by long periods of droughts are likely to take place even though average rainfall may remain the same. The average temperature in India has risen by 0.6 degree Celsius in the last century. It is expected to increase by 2.4 degrees by the year 2100.

The impact of climate change will be more severe on rain fed agriculture. Crops like bajra, corn and ragi are cultivated in large tracts of India. In Rajasthan there are good rains at the time of sowing followed by long dry spells such that the farmer only harvests the straw at end of the season. Climate change will hit at rain fed agriculture majorly. Farmers in these areas will demand facilities of irrigation such as from canals. Crop in irrigated areas will also come under pressure. It is predicted that there will be a reduction in winter rains. This will require that larger numbers of irrigation be given. Long spells of no rains in the monsoons will increase the demand for irrigation for paddy as well. There will be an increase in demand for irrigation in all the seasons.

The availability of water, on the other hand, will reduce. It is predicted that there will be less snowfall in the hills. That will lead to less flow in the rivers during the summers when the demand of water is the highest. Greater variability in the rainfall pattern will lead to less recharge of groundwater aquifers. Continuously drizzling water for number of days enables large amounts of water to seep into the earth. One gush of heavy rainfall, on the other hand, provides less time for the water to seep into the earth. Most water flows into the rivers and into the sea. Official efforts to control floods have also led to less recharge of aquifers. Previously flood waters used to inundate large tracts of land and water used to seep into the aquifers. Now there are embankments along many rivers. These prevent the spread of flood waters. As a result the groundwater level is fast declining in most areas of the country.

The availability of water for irrigation will be further reduced due to evaporation from large storage reservoirs like Bhakra and Tehri. A study of 12 large reservoirs in the United States predicted that evaporation loss will increase by nine percent in the next century. The loss is likely to be more in India's warmer climate. India is faced with a double whammy.

Climate change will also have global political implications for India. Warmer temperatures will be mildly positive for colder countries of Europe and North America; while it will be hugely negative for tropical countries like India. That means that the developed countries will be able to produce larger quantities of food grains while India's production may decline. India had to go with a begging bowl to Washington in the sixties for supply of food grains under the United States' PL 480 program. A similar situation may be created yet again. Thus climate change will affect sovereignty.

What is urgently needed is to make changes in agriculture and water policies to face these multiple challenges arising from global warming. The indigenous varieties of food grains like paddy and wheat are more resistant to climate variations. But India had abandoned these varieties in favour of High Yielding Varieties to augment food production in the wake of the food crisis of the sixties. Farmers must be encouraged to grow traditional varieties even though the production may be less. The farmer is willing to make this change. He wants to insulate himself from the vagaries of weather. His problem is that he cannot make his ends meet if the production is less. Therefore, the government must put in place a system of incentives for growing indigenous varieties. Also, farmers must adopt water conservation measures such as drip irrigation so that farmers can grow same amount of grains with less water. Once again the problem is that of price. The farmers do not have the income or the incentive to invest in drip irrigation systems. This requires increase in price and provision of incentives.

Water-intensive crops like grapes, srgar cane and red chilies requie large amounts of water. Often these are produced for export. In other words Indian farmers pack scarce water into these crops and export water to foreign countries. Need is to assess the availability of water in each block of the country and put restrictions on growing of crops that consume more water than is available. Farmers make tens of irrigations in dry areas of Gulbarga and Jodhpur to grow grapes and red chilies. This must stop.

If anything India's water policy also needs reconsideration. Present policy is to make large reservoirs like Bhakra and Tehri and store monsoon water for use in the summers. As told above this is leading to huge losses due to evaporation. Instead government must store water in groundwater aquifers. All embankments along the rivers must be removed and let the flood waters spread over large areas so that the aquifers are recharged.

Vol. 48, No. 12, Sep 27 - Oct 3, 2015