Crops in India Wilt in a Weak Monsoon Season

Published: September 3, 2012

MURUMA, India ­ Vilas Dinkar Mukane lives halfway around the world from the corn farmers of Iowa, but the Indian sharecropper is at risk of losing his livelihood for the same reason: not enough rain.

With the nourishing downpours of the annual monsoon season down an average of 12 percent across India and much more in some regions, farmers in this village about 250 miles east of Mumbai are on the brink of disaster. “If this situation continues, I’ll lose everything,” said Mr. Mukane, whose soybean, sugarcane and cotton crops were visibly stunted and wilting in his fields recently. “Nothing can happen without water.”

Drought has devastated crops around the world this year, including corn and soybeans in the United States, wheat in Russia and Australia and soybeans in Brazil and Argentina. This has contributed to a 6 percent rise in global>food prices from June to July, according to United Nations data.

India is experiencing its fourth drought in a dozen years, raising concerns about the reliability of the country’s primary source of fresh water, the monsoon rains that typically fall from June to October.

Some scientists warn that such calamities are part of a trend that is likely to intensify in the coming decades because of climate changes caused by the human release of greenhouse gases.

A paper published last month <>blamed global warming for a large increase in the percentage of the planet affected by extreme summer heat in the last several decades. And the World Meteorological Organization, a division of the United Nations, <>recently warned that climate change was “projected to increase the frequency, intensity and duration of droughts, with impacts on many sectors, in particular food, water and energy.”

Scientists say that in addition to increasing temperatures, climate change appears to be making India and its neighbors Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh more vulnerable to erratic monsoons.

Studies using 130 years of data show big changes in rainfall in recent decades, said <>B. N. Goswami, director of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, a government-backed research organization. Climate models suggest that while overall rainfall should increase in the coming decades, the region can expect longer dry spells and more intense downpours ­ forces that would seem to cancel each other out but in fact pose new threats.

“Heavy rains are normally short duration, and therefore the water runs off,” said Dr. Goswami, who added that more research was needed to fully understand the impact of climate change on monsoons. “Weak rains are important for recharging groundwater.”

India is more vulnerable to disruption from drought than countries like the United States. While agriculture accounts for just 15 percent of India’s economy, half of its 1.2 billion people work on farms, and many of its poorest citizens already cannot afford enough food after price increases of 10 percent or more in the last couple of years.

“These kinds of rainfall failures have a lot of human effects,” said Yoginder K. Alagh, chairman of the Institute of Rural Management and a former Indian minister. “A large number of people don’t get employment. There are acute drinking water problems.”

Food grain and oilseed production in India could fall up to 12 percent this year as a result of poor rain, said <>P. K. Joshi, director for South Asia at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The good news is that the drought is not likely to result in widespread famine. India has more than 76 million tons of wheat, rice and other grain in storage, in part because of government support for those crops and an export ban put in place in 2008 when global food prices shot up. But analysts expect prices for dairy, meat, lentils and vegetables to rise.

Unlike the United States, where crop insurance and other government programs provide a safety net for farmers, India offers ad hoc and unpredictable government support, increasing the risk that legions of farmers will be wiped out.

If it does not rain soon, Mr. Mukane, 25, who works a field here in Muruma, said he would have to sell whatever he could to repay banks and lenders 500,000 rupees (about $9,000), much of it borrowed at an interest rate of 7 percent a month.

Weak monsoon rains were also an underlying cause of <>the blackouts that cut power to half of the country in July. The paucity of water lowered the supply of power from dams that account for a fifth of electric capacity, even as consumers cranked up fans and air-conditioners and farmers ran electric pumps to draw water from wells.

Experts say the impact of the poor monsoon rains has been compounded by mismanagement. The chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, recently said that much of the $1.5 billion a year that the state spent on water projects appeared to have been wasted, with virtually no increase in the amount of irrigated farmland over the last decade.

Kiran Singh Pal, a government engineer who manages the irrigation system in the region, said it was poorly maintained because officials like himself had not been given enough money and staff. He also said many farmers had received no government water because so much of it was cornered by a few powerful landowners.

“We have enough water to irrigate all the fields,” Mr. Pal said. “The problem is we don’t have any control.”

Mr. Mukane, the sharecropper, and his neighbors said their problems were heightened because they received much less water this year from a nearby reservoir, which is so depleted that it can barely provide drinking water to Aurangabad, a city of 1.2 million.

Federal and state officials have begun offering small types of relief for hard-hit areas, like fodder for cattle, cheap diesel fuel and subsidized seeds.

But Bhaurao Bhanudas Date, a 48-year-old farmer near Muruma, said that what he needed most was water. He said he expected little to no return from his sugarcane and cotton crops this year and would have to fall back on the income he earned from selling fodder and milk from his five cows.

Mr. Mukane said his father recently went to a temple to pray for rain, taking a pot of river water as an offering. The family is particularly anxious because Mr. Mukane’s wife is expecting their first child, and the government usually provides relief only to landowners, not to farmers who rent land.

“We keep looking up, hoping it will rain today,” he said on a recent afternoon as clouds covered the sky. About 10 minutes later, his prayers seemed to have been answered when a light drizzle started. But it petered out after a few minutes.