Climate change is making India’s monsoons erratic. Can farmers still find a way to prosper?


BENGALURU, India (AP) — Every year, a heavy rain shower comes from June to September Indias southwest coast to the northeastern border, quenching farmers’ thirsty fields.

India’s monsoon season is perhaps the most important weather phenomenon for the country, and a good monsoon can noticeably boost the country’s economy and the livelihoods of its 120 million farmers. But man-made climate change makes rainfall more erratic, making it difficult for farmers to plant, grow and harvest crops in their rain-fed fields.

“It rains too much in a short time, or it doesn’t rain at all,” said Vijay Jawandhia, a 77-year-old farmer in the western state of Maharashtra. Jawandhia grows cotton, soybeans and various other crops that require a relatively cool climate and constant irrigation in the first weeks after sowing. “We planted our cotton seeds after a good monsoon was forecast, but it rained for only two days and then stopped, so now we are afraid our crops will fail again.”

The Indian Meteorological Department had predicted good rainfall from the monsoon clouds earlier this year, but that was not the case extreme heat in northern India stopped the progress of the rain. The agency revised its forecasts in June, saying rainfall this year will be less than previously expected.

Many are looking for ways to adapt to this new, unpredictable reality. Experts suggest growing crops that require less water, better and more local forecasting methods and protection against unexpected weather. But changing age-old ways of farming the land will not be an easy task.

How does climate change affect the monsoons?

India typically has two monsoons: one that moves from southwest to northeast from June to September, and another in the opposite direction from October to December.

But with more planet-warming gases in the air, rain now only loosely follows this pattern. This is because the warmer air can hold more moisture from the Indian Ocean, and that rain is then dumped all at once. It means that the monsoon is interrupted by intense flooding and dry spells, rather than persistent rain.

“When it rains now, it rains heavily,” said Madhavan Rajeevan, a retired senior official at India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences. Rajeevan has been monitoring the monsoons for decades and has noticed that “the number of rainy days is decreasing, even though the total amount of seasonal rainfall has remained about the same over the past century.”

Landslides and floods are increasing, he said, in addition to high temperatures and extended periods of drought adding to farmers’ misery.

The flood is also possible result in deaths and economic lossessuch as the hundreds of deaths and more than $1.42 billion in damage in Himachal Pradesh in 2023 due to heavy monsoon rains.

Rajeevan added that hydropower sources that generate large amounts of electricity are also built with persistent rainfall in mind, and extreme rainfall and flooding can lead to health problems such as an increase in cases of typhoid, cholera and malaria.

What does this mean for farmers?

The erratic rain is a major blow to their livelihood.

Maharashtra has witnessed thousands of farmers die by suicide which many say is a result of agriculture-related debt. “Our region has become infamous for this,” says Jawandhia, the farmer.

Farmers in traditionally resource-rich regions, such as Punjab and Haryana in northern India, also say they are negatively affected by both fewer rainy days and too much rain when it does rain.

Tezveer Singh, a farmer in Haryana town of Ambala, recalls how “entire towns and fields were flooded, hundreds of cattle died from drowning and three people lost their lives” during last year’s floods.

Singh grows rice, potatoes and sugarcane on his 50-acre farm and said urgent policy changes are needed to stop flood damage.

He suggested that officials can “compensate our losses when necessary, supply climate-resilient seeds, make agricultural supply chains more efficient and increase minimum crop prices.”

“The climate has become tough and we have to adapt,” he said.

How can they adapt?

India’s weather bureau makes state-level monsoon rainfall forecasts for the entire country, but climate experts say the forecasts need to be more local to be useful to farmers.

Vishwas Chitale, leader of the climate resilience team at the New Delhi-based Council on Energy, Environment and Water, said making local weather forecasts and accordingly changing the times of year that farmers plant their crops can help.

In many places in India, “maximum rainfall now occurs in October and not really in June and July like it used to,” says Chitale, who also co-authored a 2024 report that looked at India’s changing monsoon patterns. Crops waiting to be harvested are damaged.”

He added that it is important that better forecasting is available to anyone across the country who needs it.

Some farmers are already adapting to a warmer world. In the southern state of Kerala, an organic farming collective has started changing the way they sow and harvest plants based on changing rainfall patterns. The farmers’ collective has also created an agricultural calendar that takes climate change into account, which they share with other local farmers.

“This preparedness helps farmers,” said Rajesh Krishnan, a rice farmer who is part of the collective that worked with local weather officials on the forecasts. Krishnan said their daily and weekly forecasts have at least 70% accuracy. “This helps limit losses and also ensures a better harvest. The forecasts also help us decide when to harvest our crops,” he said.

Climate experts like Rajeevan say the collective’s model needs to be replicated across the country so that farmers can cope with the changing monsoons.

After all, he said, “monsoons are part of our culture. We cannot imagine India without monsoons.”


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