This past summer’s failed monsoon in India may well be a glimpse of times to come for the country’s 600 million farmers. The majority (60%) of India’s farmland is rain-fed, with summer crops such as rice, sugar-cane and soybean dependent on the summer monsoon. As the effects of climate change are increasingly felt in the subcontinent, monsoon rains will become more and more erratic. The events of this summer will become the norm, as changing monsoon patterns will plague farmers with uncertainty as to when best plant their seeds, and pithy rainfall will lead to significantly diminished harvests. Smaller harvests and falling incomes have wide-sweeping social impacts, from rising rates of hunger and farmer suicide, to, as in many cultures throughout the world, the marrying off of more women and at younger ages, to provide much-needed sources of income.
For the remaining farmland that is irrigated and dependent on borehole drilling, the lower levels of rainfall associated with climate change in certain regions of India, will mean significantly reduced groundwater recharge. At present, the water table in much of North India is rapidly falling, causing farmers to drill deeper to access vital sources of water. According to Matthew Rodell of Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center, from 2002-2008, water levels in North India fell 1.6 inches each year; the equivalent of 26 cubic miles of ground water – gone. The melting of the Himalayan glaciers, already well under way, will make irrigation increasingly difficult as the glacier-fed rivers across much of South Asia will start to dry up.
If this scenario seems overwhelming, it is. But what is perhaps most disturbing is that for farmers in India, this has become a self-perpetuating cycle: drought, debt, the planting of water intensive crops, more drought, more debt. As crops fail, more and more of India’s farmers are forced to take loans from notoriously corrupt money lenders, whose money comes with exorbitant interest rates attached. To pay off these debts, farmers are increasingly planting soy as a high value cash crop, the majority of which is used as an animal feed component. What makes soy particularly troubling is its water- intensive nature, and to successfully harvest the crop, farmers often require more water than is readily available. As a result, these farmers are forced to go into more debt to purchase water for the soy, all while fresh-water is becoming increasingly scarce. To entangle the web even further, these farmers are, as a means of survival, becoming an integral part of the global livestock sector, which contributes at least 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions – thereby unknowingly contributing to the climatic forces that curse them. In India, as in every country around the world, policy makers will have to re-assess their national priorities as more is learnt about the climate impacts of our agricultural systems.