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No Rain or Too Much of It: Why India Is Witnessing Changing Monsoon Patterns

The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

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If you've lived in Delhi for even a few years, you would know that surviving the weather here is no mean feat. The city has witnessed some of the hottest summers and coldest winters in the last few years.

Year on year, it's becoming harder to predict the record-hitting temperatures the city will touch. And even between these extremes, the monsoon has been taking us by a surprise, too.

On 28 June, Delhi broke an 88-year-old record as the national capital received 228.1 mm of rainfall in the span of a few hours, which was more than its monthly average.

The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

Vehicles are submerged at a waterlogged road near Sarai Kale Khan area after rain, in New Delhi, Friday, June 28, 2024.

(Photo: PTI)

Roughly 300 km away, Chandigarh, from 8-11 July last year, received nearly half of its total annual rainfall in a period of 50 hours, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD).

These record-breaking patterns of rainfall are true for a much larger part of India.

Between 2012 and 2022, at least 55 percent of the tehsils in India, out of the 4,723 tehsils surveyed, reported an increase of over 10 percent rainfall. This means they received more rainfall than they were expecting or prepared for, including the traditionally drier tehsils in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu, a report published by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) on the changing patterns of monsoon in India earlier this year had indicated.

The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

The blue area on these charts indicates the percentage of tehsils that report increased rainfall.

(Photo: CEEW Study, 2024)

On the other hand, in 2021, the IMD stated that between 1989-2018, states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Meghalaya, etc, reported “significant decreasing trends in southwest monsoon rainfall.”

As India has been witnessing erratic patterns of rainfall in the last couple of years, the monsoon season has annually given way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall.

But why is the pattern of rainfall in India changing so drastically? And who does this affect the most?

No Rain or Too Much of It: Why India Is Witnessing Changing Monsoon Patterns

  1. 1. What Is Behind This Extreme Weather Phenomena?

    There’s not one reason that can be singularly pinpointed for the way our rainfall patterns are changing. There are multiple factors at play.

    For starters, Dr Vishwas Chitale, Senior Programme Lead, CEEW, says that the Western disturbance, which is a common phenomenon in India, is changing. He tells The Quint, that western disturbances are to blame for much of the problem.

    Western disturbances are basically storms that form in the Mediterranean Basin, collect moisture from the Mediterranean Sea, and then move eastwards towards the Indian subcontinent. Due to their high moisture content, they bring rain or snowfall to the Himalayan region and other hilly states, in the winter months.

    “Now, because of climate change, the warming of the Arctic and Mediterranean oceans is increasing. Because of the increase in temperatures, both these seas are seeing excessive evaporation. This Western disturbance travels from the Mediterranean Sea, comes over Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and then enters into northwest India. On the way, it collects a lot of additional moisture, more than it did in the past.”
    Dr Vishwas Chitale
    The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

    Representative image showing western disturbances.

    (Photo: The Quint)

    Dr Anjal Prakash, Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director Bharti Institute of Public Policy, agrees. He explains that as the atmosphere warms and holds more moisture, it causes shorter or more concentrated spells of really intense rainfall – often leading to flooding.

    This excessive warming of the oceans is leading to another thing – storms and cyclones being formed in the pre-monsoon season, which then bring untimely rainfall. 

    The Western disturbance and the increase in marine temperatures, experts say, caused the extreme rainfall Delhi saw on 28 June, and the destructive monsoons that Himachal Pradesh witnessed last year. 
    The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

    A flooded area following heavy rainfall, in Mandi district, Sunday, June 25, 2023.

    (Photo: PTI)

    The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

    Bhuntar valley bridge in Kullu washed away during heavy rains, in July 2023.

    (Photo: PTI)

    The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

    The aftermath of rainfall in Shimla in August 2023.

    (Photo: PTI)

    Also to blame are the La Nina and El Nino phases – that have been delaying the onset of monsoon in India for the past couple of years.

    El Nino, which essentially is the warming of the Pacific Ocean, ended after nearly an year, having impacted climate and Indian monsoon significantly.

    Now, with the transition towards La Nina, which is the periodic cooling of the Pacific Ocean, we could expect an average monsoon in the coming months.

    However, Dr Prakash also emphasises that while the warming of the planet and climate change has been impacting our weather patterns, we haven't necessarily been helping the cause either.

    With increasing deforestation, and construction going on in landscapes that are sensitive and at-risk, we are only looking at more erratic changes in our atmosphere. Remember the sinking town of Joshimath, the landslides reported there, and the cracks that appeared in many of the buildings in the region between December 2022-January 2023? All of that was thanks to deforestation and unorganised construction.

    Expand
  2. 2. At the Receiving End of Climate Change – All of Us

    What’s also important to note is who is disproportionately affected by the changing rain patterns and sudden short spells of rain.

    For one, Dr Prakash says, “The impact on agriculture and farming communities tends to be more pronounced, as their livelihoods are directly tied to the availability and timing of rainfall for successful crop production.”

    With even the slightest delay or early onset of rainfall, farmers, especially in rural areas, have to bear the brunt of poor crop yields, economic losses, food insecurity, and then have to struggle to find water resources, adds Dr Prakash.

    Dr Chitale nods in agreement. He quantifies this with an example:

    “For at least the past 10 years, there has always been a delayed onset of monsoon in Maharashtra. In June, the monsoon starts picking. In July, it peaks, and then in August, there is a sudden decline of rainfall for 2-3 weeks, which causes a drought situation. Because of that, a lot of crop loss occurs. Then there is an increase in rainfall in September, followed by even more excessive rainfall in October which causes direct damage to standing crops. These kinds of patterns are very visible in cases of rain-fed agriculture. In Maharashtra, 80 percent of agriculture is rain fed overall. In the country, more than 50 percent agriculture is rain-fed.”

    In urban areas, erratic rainfall is almost always accompanied by flooding, sewage drains getting blocked, damage to houses, vehicles, public infrastructure, etc.

    The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

    People wade through a waterlogged road near Sarai Kale Khan area after rain, in New Delhi, Friday, June 28, 2024.

    (Photo: PTI)

    But, Dr Chitale mentions, that one area of impact that often goes unnoticed is how the changing patterns of rainfall are impacting our water resources and renewable energy plants, when adequate amounts of water aren’t replenished through rain.

    The World Bank too, in a 2023 article, had stated that erratic rainfall in India has been "bringing extreme rainfall on the one hand and sudden drought on the other. Worryingly, India's drought-prone area has increased by 57 percent since 1997, while instances of heavy rainfall have risen by almost 85 percent since 2012."

    Expand
  3. 3. No Such Thing As Too Prepared

    At this moment, the only way to counter the changing patterns of rain and the erraticness of the event is integrating government schemes, policy changes, and adaptation strategies, Dr Prakash tells The Quint.

    “Governments can implement policies to promote sustainable land use, water management practices, and carbon emission reductions to mitigate climate change.”
    Dr Anjal Prakash

    But as preventive measures, there’s much more that can be done. Both Dr Prakash and Dr Chitale suggest:

    • Invest in climate-resilient infrastructure.

    • Educate farming communities about climate-resilient agriculture and drought-resistant crops.

    • Invest in flood control infrastructure and flood action plans.

    • Closely monitor stormwater management and sewerage networks.

    • Look into nature-based solutions to absorb excessive water – more green spaces and green cover.

    • Enhance the early warning systems.

    • Focus on funding and financing climate action.

    The one positive thing to look forward to, according to Dr Chitale, is that the IMD is working towards giving accurate forecast down to the lowest possible administrative unit within cities – which could help predict where the rainfall intensity could be high, prepare early warning systems accordingly, and prepare for both prevention and recovery.

    “We also have to see how good the capacity of the decision makers to respond to these kinds of challenges is. Are they aware of within the city which are the wards that are at highest risk? Which are the wards that have a vulnerable or slum dominated population? Which wards get regularly submerged or flooded? Have they done the city mapping? Are there any preparedness measures that have been implemented?”
    Dr Vishwas Chitale

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Is Behind This Extreme Weather Phenomena?

There’s not one reason that can be singularly pinpointed for the way our rainfall patterns are changing. There are multiple factors at play.

For starters, Dr Vishwas Chitale, Senior Programme Lead, CEEW, says that the Western disturbance, which is a common phenomenon in India, is changing. He tells The Quint, that western disturbances are to blame for much of the problem.

Western disturbances are basically storms that form in the Mediterranean Basin, collect moisture from the Mediterranean Sea, and then move eastwards towards the Indian subcontinent. Due to their high moisture content, they bring rain or snowfall to the Himalayan region and other hilly states, in the winter months.

“Now, because of climate change, the warming of the Arctic and Mediterranean oceans is increasing. Because of the increase in temperatures, both these seas are seeing excessive evaporation. This Western disturbance travels from the Mediterranean Sea, comes over Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and then enters into northwest India. On the way, it collects a lot of additional moisture, more than it did in the past.”
Dr Vishwas Chitale
The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

Representative image showing western disturbances.

(Photo: The Quint)

Dr Anjal Prakash, Clinical Associate Professor (Research) and Research Director Bharti Institute of Public Policy, agrees. He explains that as the atmosphere warms and holds more moisture, it causes shorter or more concentrated spells of really intense rainfall – often leading to flooding.

This excessive warming of the oceans is leading to another thing – storms and cyclones being formed in the pre-monsoon season, which then bring untimely rainfall. 

The Western disturbance and the increase in marine temperatures, experts say, caused the extreme rainfall Delhi saw on 28 June, and the destructive monsoons that Himachal Pradesh witnessed last year. 
The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

A flooded area following heavy rainfall, in Mandi district, Sunday, June 25, 2023.

(Photo: PTI)

The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

Bhuntar valley bridge in Kullu washed away during heavy rains, in July 2023.

(Photo: PTI)

The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

The aftermath of rainfall in Shimla in August 2023.

(Photo: PTI)

Also to blame are the La Nina and El Nino phases – that have been delaying the onset of monsoon in India for the past couple of years.

El Nino, which essentially is the warming of the Pacific Ocean, ended after nearly an year, having impacted climate and Indian monsoon significantly.

Now, with the transition towards La Nina, which is the periodic cooling of the Pacific Ocean, we could expect an average monsoon in the coming months.

However, Dr Prakash also emphasises that while the warming of the planet and climate change has been impacting our weather patterns, we haven't necessarily been helping the cause either.

With increasing deforestation, and construction going on in landscapes that are sensitive and at-risk, we are only looking at more erratic changes in our atmosphere. Remember the sinking town of Joshimath, the landslides reported there, and the cracks that appeared in many of the buildings in the region between December 2022-January 2023? All of that was thanks to deforestation and unorganised construction.

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At the Receiving End of Climate Change – All of Us

What’s also important to note is who is disproportionately affected by the changing rain patterns and sudden short spells of rain.

For one, Dr Prakash says, “The impact on agriculture and farming communities tends to be more pronounced, as their livelihoods are directly tied to the availability and timing of rainfall for successful crop production.”

With even the slightest delay or early onset of rainfall, farmers, especially in rural areas, have to bear the brunt of poor crop yields, economic losses, food insecurity, and then have to struggle to find water resources, adds Dr Prakash.

Dr Chitale nods in agreement. He quantifies this with an example:

“For at least the past 10 years, there has always been a delayed onset of monsoon in Maharashtra. In June, the monsoon starts picking. In July, it peaks, and then in August, there is a sudden decline of rainfall for 2-3 weeks, which causes a drought situation. Because of that, a lot of crop loss occurs. Then there is an increase in rainfall in September, followed by even more excessive rainfall in October which causes direct damage to standing crops. These kinds of patterns are very visible in cases of rain-fed agriculture. In Maharashtra, 80 percent of agriculture is rain fed overall. In the country, more than 50 percent agriculture is rain-fed.”

In urban areas, erratic rainfall is almost always accompanied by flooding, sewage drains getting blocked, damage to houses, vehicles, public infrastructure, etc.

The monsoon season is giving way to flash floods, and intense bouts of rainfall. What's going wrong?

People wade through a waterlogged road near Sarai Kale Khan area after rain, in New Delhi, Friday, June 28, 2024.

(Photo: PTI)

But, Dr Chitale mentions, that one area of impact that often goes unnoticed is how the changing patterns of rainfall are impacting our water resources and renewable energy plants, when adequate amounts of water aren’t replenished through rain.

The World Bank too, in a 2023 article, had stated that erratic rainfall in India has been "bringing extreme rainfall on the one hand and sudden drought on the other. Worryingly, India's drought-prone area has increased by 57 percent since 1997, while instances of heavy rainfall have risen by almost 85 percent since 2012."

No Such Thing As Too Prepared

At this moment, the only way to counter the changing patterns of rain and the erraticness of the event is integrating government schemes, policy changes, and adaptation strategies, Dr Prakash tells The Quint.

“Governments can implement policies to promote sustainable land use, water management practices, and carbon emission reductions to mitigate climate change.”
Dr Anjal Prakash

But as preventive measures, there’s much more that can be done. Both Dr Prakash and Dr Chitale suggest:

  • Invest in climate-resilient infrastructure.

  • Educate farming communities about climate-resilient agriculture and drought-resistant crops.

  • Invest in flood control infrastructure and flood action plans.

  • Closely monitor stormwater management and sewerage networks.

  • Look into nature-based solutions to absorb excessive water – more green spaces and green cover.

  • Enhance the early warning systems.

  • Focus on funding and financing climate action.

The one positive thing to look forward to, according to Dr Chitale, is that the IMD is working towards giving accurate forecast down to the lowest possible administrative unit within cities – which could help predict where the rainfall intensity could be high, prepare early warning systems accordingly, and prepare for both prevention and recovery.

“We also have to see how good the capacity of the decision makers to respond to these kinds of challenges is. Are they aware of within the city which are the wards that are at highest risk? Which are the wards that have a vulnerable or slum dominated population? Which wards get regularly submerged or flooded? Have they done the city mapping? Are there any preparedness measures that have been implemented?”
Dr Vishwas Chitale

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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