The raining quandary of a $2 trillion economy
On the stormy night of June 18, about 10% of Mumbai’s annual monsoon quota descended in a deluge so devastating that, in the morning after, the local government advised a population of 13 million to stay home the day, Friday.
Since then, barely a shower has appeared in what ought to be peak monsoon month of July. Mumbai and India, like many regions worldwide, are experiencing weather vagaries so peculiar that they seem more like climatic craziness than changes courtesy global warming.
Roundabout the June 18 skyfall in Mumbai, a searing heat wave with temperatures of 45 °C (113 °F) killed over 1,200 in Karachi, Pakistan, while monsoon floods swept away over 50 lives, 100,000 homes and US$ 4 billion in losses in China.
Not just India and Asia suffered mercurial climatic patterns. The prolonged four-year old drought in California brought sections of the southern US state to daily routines of villagers in African dry lands. In foothills of the Sierra Nevada, distraught townsfolk in East Porterville, Tulare County, now go miles to fetch water for bathing and cooking — water poverty ravaging the land of the Californian Gold Rush, of the Sierra Rivers of Sacramento and Carson, Lakes Tahoe and Tulare.
For over a decade, strange weather patterns have been worrying the world. But for India, monsoon is an annual anxiety that seems to increase with strength of its economy — there’s much more now to lose. India’s economy crossed US$2 trillion GDP in 2014, but needs ways to be liberated from monsoon worries. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley projected growth of 8 percent to 10 percent, if the monsoon delivered.
Even as I write this, the Monday of July 20 dawned with dark clouds and promise of rains delivered. But after a mild downpour that set the standard scene for a mellow monsoon morning in Mumbai, sunshine beamed down again in untimely arrival like a ham actor blundering onto stage in wrong cue.
About 24 years ago, the sun vanished for weeks this time of the year in what was then Bombay: grey daylight, drizzle, downpour, more drizzle and brooding skies to dusk, until city lights gleamed like watery jewels, and car head lamps turned wet roads into streams of gold in rainy nights. This was daily pattern during monsoon from June to end August, when we were as likely to step out without an umbrella as forgetting to wear clothes. The only big climatic similarity between now and 25 years past is India continues being heavily dependent on the rains.
On June 3, the regulator Reserve Bank of India termed a poor monsoon as the biggest uncertainty facing India’s economy. “In the 1950s and 1960s, the Indian budget was regarded as a gamble on the monsoon rains,” said the government-owned India Meteorological Department, the official weather and monsoon tracker. “This holds good even now.”
Monsoon vagaries damage the economy by ruining crops, shooting up food prices in a cascading inflation effect. Erratic monsoon, as version 2015, demolishes carefully planned municipality budgeting for drinking water, affecting hundreds of millions living in cities. Major metros already suffer serious shortage of the liquid of life. Even in national capital New Delhi and financial capital Mumbai, awash with billionaire businessmen and millionaire movie stars, government-supplied water lasts for only two or three hours daily, yearlong. Households store water in underground tanks, pump from bore-wells or buy from water trucks.
The abnormal has become long normal routine. So in a typically lethargic mindset of waiting for a problem to become a crisis and then graduate to a calamity, Mumbai and other cities are not yet strongly following the southern Indian metropolis of Chennai in alternatives: such as making rainwater harvesting mandatory for buildings and homes. With governmental financial support, the often drought-hit Tamil Nadu state has 2.3 million structures with rainwater storage systems.
“We get a lot of rain, yet we do not have water because we have not realized the value of each drop of rain,” say the Chennai Metro Water officials, in a rap to the country, maybe the world. “Ironically, even Cherrapunji [in north-eastern India] which receives about 11,000 mm of rainfall annually suffers from acute shortage of drinking water. This is because the rainwater is not conserved but allowed to drain away. Thus it does not matter how much rain we get, if we don’t capture or harvest it.”
So I see, bewildered, water trucks selling their liquid cargo (even during rains!) to the building in Churchgate, Mumbai, from where I chronicle these mysteries of the monsoon. Thousands of litres of water gushes from the terrace drain pipes during rains – and all we need is a filtered rubber hose connecting storm pipes to the two underground water tanks in the car park – to collect as much precious rainwater as possible. But the suggestion was shrugged off, and the building administrators generously enrich water truck owners who do roaring business, sunshine or rain. These merry water merchants must be holidaying in St. Moritz.
Even as the rains become expensively erratic, theories about climatic change are wearing new conspiratorial colours. ‘The Ultimate Weapon of Mass Destruction: ‘Owning the Weather’ for Military Use’, warns Michel Chossudovsky, a Professor of Economics (emeritus) at the University of Ottawa.
“Environmental modification techniques (ENMOD) for military use constitute, in the present context of global warfare, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction,” says Prof Chossudovsky in an article published May 18, 2015, for the Montreal-based Centre for Research on Globalization. “Rarely acknowledged in the debate on global climate change, the world’s weather can now be modified as part of a new generation of sophisticated electromagnetic weapons. Both the US and Russia have developed capabilities to manipulate the climate for military use.”
While Prof Chossudovsky details a Pentagon secret project called The High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), based in Gokona, Alaska — apparently managed jointly by the US Air Force and the US Navy — he admits there is no proof that climate warfare caused “a number of unusual and dramatic climatic changes” recently in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea.
Whether malevolent manipulation or creeping climate change, the bare present reality of more droughts worldwide should have this genie called Common Sense popping up to ask: isn’t it time to work hard to cope with the water crisis? The mind boggles at what would happen in India and China, the world’s two largest populations, if this rain roulette spins away monsoons for two consecutive years, leave alone four years like in California. This question of survival should be a forefront talking point. And so on June 28, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about rainwater harvesting in his monthly radio address to the country.
Without rain harvesting and water recycling, mega metros like Mumbai and New Delhi have a water bomb ticking. A crisis has already overtaken cities were water scarcity was never a worry. The Guardian, in its ‘São Paulo – anatomy of a failing megacity: residents struggle as water taps run dry‘ – detailed the harrowing plight of people without water for four days – a horror they did not see coming. “We spent four days without water, and we saw what it was like, “Isabela Berger Sacramento said, “We saw people behave like animals in our building, so imagine 20 million people.”
Water woes are heading to get worse. If we continue on our current trajectory, warned the United Nations this March, “We will only have 60 percent of the water we need in 2030. Countries like India, the UN World Water Development 2015 report said, are rapidly depleting their groundwater. Rainfall patterns around the world are becoming more unpredictable due to global warming — meaning there will be less water in reserves. Meanwhile, as the population increases, so does demand for potable water, snowballing to a massive problem for our waterways in 15 years’ time.”
Not merely larger populations, but larger incomes increase water consumption — more cars to wash, plush lawns to water, golf courses to maintain. Rather than doling out dire warnings, the United Nations would be better off urgently appealing to world leaders for a summit on water – with annual follow-up on action taken – before the crisis evolves to a catastrophe. Even in Canada, extreme dry conditions have forced officials to raise drought rating to the highest category Level 4, in South Coast and Lower Fraser area of British Columbia – meaning water cuts in a country with over 50% of all lakes in the planet.
Rainwater harvesting makes a difference as evident in southern India. Storing and recycling options offer more immediate promise than more elaborate ways to connect geographic dots of water surplus with water scarcity. India, for instance, has been long mulling linking rivers through canals. The forbidding logistics of such canal projects has kept successive governments from going beyond feasibility studies to link rivers.
But rather than logistic nightmares of multi-billion dollar water canals like a mini Suez, engineering skills could be invested in cross country water pipelines. Transcontinental oil pipelines stretch for thousands of kilometers, like the 8,706-km East-West oil line connecting Xinjiang to Shanghai, or the 3,100 mile GASUN Pipeline from the Mato Grosso do Sul to Maranhão in Brazil. Similar water mega pipelines can link flooding rivers to dry river beds, reservoirs, existing and newly dug lakes, even across neigbouring countries. Where there is a will, there will be water.
The alternatives are scary. Desperately drawn ground water already causes deadly effects in India, with people badly deformed with fluorosis, a crippling bone disease contracted through contaminated water and food.
The monsoon, central and state governments continue to betray farmers in drought-hit regions of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, for two decades. Thousands of farmers have committed suicide due to failed crops and overdue loans. In an endless tragedy, the farmer suicides continue with crops destroyed from contaminated soil, untimely rain – or no rain.
To save lives, financial costs for better water management are ridiculously insignificant compared with the trillions of dollars the world spends in buying weapons, or billions in other expenditure. During 2013-2014, 629 rainwater harvesting public projects in towns and villages cost the Tamil Nadu state government US$ 6.9 million (Rs 44 crores). A single Boeing 747 passenger jet costs $347 million.
Warning bells ring in the new quantum of water realities. In the United Arab Emirates, now one of the world’s biggest investors in desalination plants and waste water treatment, crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan declared: “For us, water is more important than oil.” Hopefully, we don’t sit tight until the day dawns when drinking water becomes more expensive than oil.
Raja Murthy is a journalist based in Mumbai, India
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