Ever more erratic monsoons take their toll in India

No sooner had we procured a dehumidifier to dry out our Mumbai apartment, which was leaking and mouldering under relentless rain, than the monsoon abruptly stopped. This was unexpected. I was braced to carry an umbrella for another two months.

There’s still time for the rain to return. But India’s monsoons are holding more and more surprises.

Torrential annual rains are the lifeblood of Indian farming, which is still the country’s most significant source of jobs. But scientists have shown that the intensity and timing of the summer monsoons, which were never particularly regular, are becoming even more erratic. This is not only worrying for the hundreds of millions whose livelihood and diet are thanks to the rains. It’s also a problem for bankers.

Economists at international bank HSBC, led by its India chief economist Pranjul Bhandari, argued in July that as the country’s climate has become more volatile, seasonal changes in food prices have become harder to forecast. So have demand for energy and domestic oil prices. And because food and fuel prices make up nearly 55 per cent of the country’s basket for measuring inflation, their joint unpredictability has created an additional headache for India’s Reserve Bank governor, who is mandated to control inflation.

“Climate change-induced surprises are making [inflation] more volatile and harder to forecast,” wrote the HSBC economists. “It is therefore no surprise that inflation forecasting errors have risen.”

Sure enough, later in July, the central bank declared it was working on a climate change mitigation strategy and published a discussion paper.

The central bankers have plenty of reason to get moving on climate change preparation. Official statistics show that India is getting hotter and drier, and experiencing wilder weather.

Last year was the fifth warmest on record, notes the meteorological department in its 2021 annual report. That’s becoming normal: of the past 15 years, 11 were designated the warmest on record.

Meanwhile, precipitation levels fell 6 per cent between 1951 and 2015, says India’s earth sciences ministry in a climate change study. But that rainfall is also becoming more volatile, the earth scientists suggest, with both dry and intense wet spells becoming more concentrated.

Climatic extremes have characterised 2022 in India. In March and April, northern parts of the country sweltered under a heat dome — a band of high pressure stuck in one place — with meteorologists noting the hottest March since records began 121 years ago. Then late spring brought a deluge to the north-eastern state of Assam.

The resulting floods lasted for weeks, killing at least 180 people and forcing more than 300,000 into relief camps, Unicef reported. The devastating toll reveals how vulnerable India is to extreme weather.

Scientists think that a mixture of changes in land use — including deforestation and urbanisation — nationally and man-made global climate change are affecting India’s weather patterns. Either way, people suffering through the extreme heat and rain are some of the world’s lowest carbon emitters per head. The average Indian emitted 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019. The average American emitted 14.7 tonnes.

Corporate India is not immune to short-term weird weather disruption.

Godrej Industries, a conglomerate that sells agricultural chemicals among other things, is one of the companies to report that the “erratic monsoon” had hit sales, in this case of crop protection products. “Normally we would sell in June, but this year it’s shifted to July,” said its chair, Nadir Godrej.

“India is fairly badly affected — monsoon changes, very hot weather in north India, some regions are going to be affected more than other regions,” said Godrej. “I firmly believe that the costs of adaptation and mitigation are higher than the costs of preventing climate change.” He said he has advocated a state-collected carbon tax.

Future climate change risks are also worrying companies. Take Indian winemaker Sula, which in July applied to launch an initial public offering. The past few years have been characterised by “unseasonal rain, changing monsoon conditions and the drastic and sudden peaks of temperatures within the same season”, Sula disclosed in regulatory filings in July. Such weather “can significantly damage harvests and affect the cultivation of grapes”, potentially causing shortages.

Sula told investors the strange weather had not yet affected its production, but might do in future: “we cannot assure you that the climatic conditions in India will be optimal for grape cultivation in the future in light of climate change”.

Another distressing vision of the future — one with more unpredictable weather and potentially less wine, too.

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