In May and June each year, speculation about the coming of the monsoon fills newspapers and conversations across India. Urban dwellers eagerly await respite from overbearing heat. Investors scrutinize forecasts, trying to anticipate possible impacts on food prices. But none have more at stake than India’s over 100 million farming households.
Crops mainly depend on rainfall, but tube wells provide supplementary irrigation. Photo courtesy of Sheshagiri Rao, IRI.
In India, where more than 60% of agricultural land is rainfed and the average farm size is only 3.5 acres, a failed monsoon often means complete loss of a crop. Recent increases in suicides among heavily indebted farmers have highlighted the extreme desperation in some areas. A lackluster monsoon can seriously impact food prices and India’s overall economic growth. For example, this year’s poor monsoon has led to increases in sugar, legume, and potato prices, and many estimate that India’s gross domestic product growth rate may drop by a full percentage point. The government also spends massive sums on drought relief. According to the agriculture ministry, relief expenses totaled about $5 billion during the last major drought in 2002.
The magnitude of these human and economic costs – particularly as concern grows over the potential for climate change to increase extreme weather patterns – has sparked interest in finding more ways to plan ahead. The International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University is partnering with Indian government agencies and universities in an innovative new research effort led by the government of India designed to improve monsoon forecasts and develop strategies that help farmers and policy makers prepare and act early, based on information tailored to their needs.