India has an ocean named after itself and has a coastline of over 7500 km. So India is essentially surrounded by water. But agriculture, which contributes about 25% to the GDP and offers up 60% of the employment, is largely rain-fed and thus perpetually subject to the vagaries of the monsoon dance. Even the breadbasket of India, viz., the rich farmlands of Punjab and Haryana, and the rice bowl of India in West Bengal are highly vulnerable to the multi-decadal decreasing trend in the monsoon because of the unsustainable exploitation of groundwater for irrigation. Clearly this is a reminder of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink. It is, however, key to remember that water cannot be considered alone when it comes to its management as a valuable resource. Water, food, energy, and health are inseparable resources.
Indian Monsoon – The Lifeline for the Country
Monsoon is an evocative concept derived from the Arabic word mausam, which means season. The summer monsoon over India, with its dramatic arrival and a season of unpredictable nakhra, has indeed served as a motivation for many a prose and poetry for millennia. It is the lifeline for the food, energy, and water security of India. A major driver for the onset of the monsoon is the northward thermal gradient between the fast warming of land during the northern spring and summer months compared to a slower warming of the Indian Ocean due to the difference in their heat capacities. The spectacular onset over the southwest corner around the beginning of June used to occur around June 01 prior to 1976 and has since been delayed to about June 05. After the onset, the monsoon advances northward to cover the entire country in a few weeks to establish the monsoon season and the crop calendar. The season comes to an end with a systematic southward withdrawal which is completed in early October. The withdrawal has advanced by few days since 1976. Thus the length of rainy season has been detectably compressed due to the delayed onset and the earlier withdrawal, leading to squeezing the rainfall into fewer days. Heavier rainfall events have been on the rise.
The summer monsoon over India, with its dramatic arrival and a season of unpredictable nakhra, has indeed served as a motivation for many a prose and poetry for millennia.
What is so magical about 1976? The normally cool sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific around Galapagos warm up once in a few years and shift the rainfall center from the warm waters off New Guinea to central and eastern Pacific. This anomalous warming of sea surface temperatures and the associated shift of the convection from the west Pacific to the east was consider a gift from God by the Spanish colonizers and is referred to as El Niño – as in the boy child or the Christ Child, due to its arrival around Christmas time off the west coast of South America. El Niño affects the monsoon but since El Niño really peaks in the winter months but the monsoon occurs 6 months before in the summer months, it is not always clear who leads when El Niño dances with the monsoon. The decades prior to 1976 were characterized by fewer and weaker El Niños whereas the decades since have had stronger and more frequent El Niños. The net impact appears to be a squeezed monsoon season.
Superimposed on the monsoon and El Niño which are natural modes of variability, global warming has been tinkering with the system also. The Indian Ocean is warming rapidly due to global warming but the Asian landmass has not been warming as rapidly as expected because the pollution or the particulate matter in the atmosphere, referred to as aerosols, have reflected sunlight to slow the warming. This has resulted in a decreasing trend of 10–20% over the Indo-Gangetic plane over the past century. Past ice ages had also led to a decrease in the strength of the monsoon due to changes in temperature of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is a cruel irony of nature if both ice ages and global warming end up weakening the monsoon. But this should serve as a wakeup call for slowing down the rampant groundwater mining and to develop local, regional, and national plans for sustainable water resource management into the future with a keen eye for the water–food–energy–health nexus since these are inextricably tied to each other.
It is also worth reminding ourselves that the water issues are not constrained by geographical boundaries since the rivers are shared by India with its neighbors. More importantly, the extreme vulnerability of our neighbors are necessarily our vulnerabilities also. For example, the low lying areas of Bangladesh are under increasing risk of storm surge and inundation due to increasing sea levels, extreme rain events and increasing cyclones. A large scale devastation and the associated human displacement will produce an environmental migration knocking at India’s doors.
Grand Challenge –Safe Navigation of the Future of Water, Food, Energy and Health
Water is a quintessential environmental issue in terms of quantity, quality and access. While global cooperation is being attempted under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change as a united response to global warming, the negotiations move at a glacial pace considering the complexity of the issues. Unlike the ozone hole problem where all humans stand to lose, global warming will create winners and losers. This makes it imperative that a country like India be a good citizen of the global community and play its role in combating local warming while being as self-reliant as possible in reducing its vulnerability to climate variability and change and enhance its resilience as far as possible to make itself a weather and climate-ready nation.
It is a cruel irony of nature if both ice ages and global warming end up weakening the monsoon.
As the pent-up demand for continued economic growth determines most political agenda, there are many lessons to be learned from a country like China which grew to be a manufacturing center for the world at the cost of importing pollution that is now blamed for over 1 million premature deaths each year. India is not far behind even before it has accomplished its goal of Make-In-India. Many millions remain without running water and electricity which puts an additional burden on water and energy demand, while the urban–rural–industrial–agricultural competition for water and energy creates unintended consequences as solutions are sought piecemeal. Leapfrogging the follies of the industrialized world and the imperfect growth model of China requires that India seek solutions that are local, sustainable, and as environmentally safe as possible while still continuing to improve the quality of life for its citizens.
Critical technology for a critical time – Innovations for Water, Food, Energy and Health
The Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies (IGTT) at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab recently released a report citing the 50 most critical scientific and technological breakthroughs required for tangible sustained development. The IGTT report may serve as a starting point for prioritizing the list of required breakthroughs for solving specific problems in the water–food–energy–health nexus, the key challenges they present, and the promising interventions available. Bottom-up solutions in terms of the nuts–and–bolts required for true sustainable development, including policy reforms, behavioral change and necessary financial, infrastructure, and educational developments can be evolved with the brainpower that exists within the country. Swaccha Bharat has to be as much about sweeping away the garbage as the cultural mores that tell us to clean our living quarters but do not tell us that we shouldn’t be dumping our garbage on the streets willy-nilly nor about all the air and water pollution we are causing because of our ever increasing standards of living. Some specific potential solutions that can ensure quality of living in addition to the standards of living can serve as illustrations.
It is also worth reminding ourselves that the water issues are not constrained by geographical boundaries since the rivers are shared by India with its neighbors.
The enormous reservoir of water offered by the Indian Ocean can be exploited with low-cost, scalable desalinization methods, which would be a monumental breakthrough for much of the country. This can not only alleviate the water stress in terms of industrial and agricultural demand but can help avoid the virtual hydrologic cycle that moves water from water-scarce regions to water-rich regions via the bottling plant operations for soft drinks. But the vast interior of the country will have to seek other affordable and viable solutions such as agroforestry – a combined forestry–agriculture–horticulture approach – that has been shown to be a robust and sustainable watershed management and food production method. Intelligent design of sea-based transportations can also connect the coastal regions to reduce congestion and pollution of the land-based transportation.
For human and animal health issues, in addition to effective vaccines, testing kits, medical instruments, innovation and implementation of inexpensive, large-scale air and water quality monitoring are needed with hand-held sensors for rapid testing of contamination levels. Digital libraries of all common pathogens can be set up and linked for verifying potability of water.
Unlike the ozone hole problem where all humans stand to lose, global warming will create winners and losers.
In addition to the large-scale energy production as a combination of hydro, nuclear, solar, wind and wave energy, small scale off-the-grid designs will help run refrigerators to store vaccines, medical samples, and nutritious food for infants. Weaning the country off the carbon-intensive energy is as important as reducing water demand for energy production. Energy demand must also be reduced for agriculture by innovation of safe fertilizers and pesticides that can be produced with minimal energy. Water and energy demands can both be reduced by low-cost, smart systems for irrigation. Agroforestry can be made more effective with organic herbicides and repellents for weed and pest control and drought-resistant seeds. Agro-innovation must also focus on off-the-grid refrigeration for cost-effective animal breeding operations in a warming climate and also high-nutrient/low-cost animal fodder, and portable toolkits for extension workers who serve regions not reached regularly by veterinarians and for the veterinarians themselves.
The IGTT report recommends a utility-in-a-box approach for deploying cost-effective renewable energy mini-grids. India will benefit enormously by designing affordable housing that is resilient to extreme weather, fitted with renewable energy sources and environmentally friendly plumbing with easy transportability to rural and remote areas.
Information Revolution – Are we there yet?
India has capitalized on its long-term investment in science and technology education by serving as an IT outsourcing hub. But it is arguable whether the country is on target for the behavioral changes and development of human capital for an equitable growth that is environmentally safe. The increases in investments for Science–Technology–Engineering–Mathematics (STEM) education has focused on establishing more and more IITs and IISERs. Climate change and global warming are ultimately social science problems and the country will do well to develop equally strong educational infrastructure for social sciences. STEM education will be a success when it can combine the science, technology and engineering prowess for societal good; for example, by implementing evolving futuristic concepts such as the Internet of Things: digital devices coupled together to create an integrated system whose sum impact is far greater than that of its components. While smart-cities is a buzzword in India now, a digitally connected system would exploit common devices such as smartphones and laptops to ensure interoperability among devices, provide continual feedback to users, and apps that would link the components of a system with common protocols, and allow users to share data for developing transferable solutions and rapid transfer of experiential knowledge from one community to another. Internet of Things should also allow universal access to digital learning tools, books and online courses, with the devices simultaneously serving as environmental sensors for temperature, humidity and wind-speeds, soil moisture and maybe even pathogens.
Prognostic Tools for Navigating the Future of Water–Food–Energy-Health Nexus
Another innovative step India has taken is to build on its science and technology education by advancing the understanding and forecasting of the monsoon. An investment of over ₹400 crores was made under the aegis of the Ministry of Earth Science in establishing a dynamic monsoon forecast system along with the required supercomputing facility at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune. In a unique and bold approach, scientific expertise from around the world has been invited to help advance the process and predictive understanding of the monsoon.
Since the monsoon occurs in fits and spells called active and break cycles, the dynamical forecasting efforts are focused on both, sub-seasonal and seasonal timescales. While the forecast of seasonal amount of rain in terms of whether it will be normal or deficit or excess is critical for the total food production and water resource management, the sub seasonal or active/break timescale forecasts are indispensable for agricultural operations, especially for rain-fed agriculture where irrigation is not an option.
Swaccha Bharat has to be as much about sweeping away the garbage as the cultural mores that tell us to clean our living quarters but do not tell us that we shouldn’t be dumping our garbage on the streets willy-nilly nor about all the air and water pollution we are causing because of our ever increasing standards of living.
This modeling effort also includes the Center for Climate Change Research within IITM-Pune, which is focusing on long-term projections of climate change and monsoon response to global warming. These projections will also assist in a holistic planning for managing the future of the water–food–energy nexus and also other related vulnerabilities; for ex., vulnerability to sea level rise, human and animal health, potential climate-driven conflicts, etc.
Much needs to be accomplished in terms of synergizing the research community, workforce training, and the public-private sector participation in not only advancing the understanding, predictions and projections of monsoons but also delivering this information in usable and actionable form to individuals, groups, and policy and decision-makers. It is commendable that the country has invested in the infrastructure needed to realize these important goals.
Bringing it all together for a Secure Future in Water, Food and Energy
It is clear that water cannot be thought of independently as a resource now without considering its intimate co-variability with food, energy, and health. And this nexus cannot be navigated safely into the future without combining education, information, innovation, policies, and governance. We are indeed living through interesting times since climate change is affecting this nexus in unpredictable ways. The least vulnerable system can only be about managing the unavoidable and avoiding the unmanageable when it comes to water for life.