Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 27 May 2012
For the past few days, while enduring Colombo’s heat and high humidity, I’ve been hoping for a timely monsoon.
A billion and a half fellow South Asians joined me in this waiting and guessing game for the mighty rain-carrying oceanic winds — one of the great forces of nature on this planet. Few things – human or natural – evoke such anxiety and anticipation.
And with good reason: the rains that the summer monsoon brings are life-giving for most parts of South Asia. An ample monsoon that arrives on time can boost harvests, drive power generation and and generate wealth across South Asia where large numbers are still engaged in farming.
A delayed or failed monsoon, on the other hand, causes much concern for governments and communities. India’s Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee acknowledged this power two years ago when he described the monsoon as the country’s “real finance minister”.
The big question – and growing worry – is whether human induced climate change is already affecting the Indian Ocean’s monsoon mechanisms.
The word ‘Monsoon’ comes from the Arabic mawsim, which means season or seasonal winds.
Monsoons occur regularly in northern Australia, Africa, South America and the US. But these are especially strong in South Asia, due to the large land mass of South Asia and a large body of water (the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean).
For six months of the year, they blow in one direction, from southwest to northeast. It reverses direction during the other half of the year.
The summer monsoon, also known as the Southwest Monsoon, comes from East Africa and is pulled eastwards by the rotation of the Earth.
From April, as temperatures rise over the land in North India and the Himalayas, it creates areas of low air pressure. The air is cooler over the Indian Ocean, creating areas of high pressure. Because of this difference, air starts flowing from the oceans to the land, bringing “wet” south-westerly winds across South Asia in late May or early June.
As the Indian environmentalist Anil Agarwal once said, “The monsoon shows how nature uses weak forces rather than concentrated forces to do its work. Just think: it takes a very small temperature differences to carry as much as 40,000 million tons of water from the oceans across thousands of miles to dump it as rainfall over India. This lack of knowledge of nature’s ways is at the core of the environmental crisis”.
The Southwest Monsoon typically arrives in Sri Lanka in late May, just before it enters the Indian subcontinent from Kerala.
Lacking glaciers and snowy mountains, Sri Lanka’s climate is primarily defined by the monsoons and the surrounding ocean. They have chiselled our land in an annual dance of elements older than any civilisation. There can be no bigger ‘foreign interference’ than this.
The Indian Ocean has been a vast arena of human activity for thousands of years – exploration, trade, immigration, invasions and conquest. All those pursuits have been driven and shaped by the monsoons. Recent research suggests that the changing strength in the monsoon rains might even have triggered dynastic change in ancient China.
The monsoons have also inspired many writers in the East and West, Rudyard Kipling and Rabindranath Tagore among them.
“The lives of ordinary people…were always ruled more by nature than by great events, by the perpetual monsoons rather than by ephemeral monarchies,” wrote British journalist and historian Richard Hall in his 1991 ‘Empires of the Monsoon: A History of the Indian Ocean and Its Invaders’.
More recently, American author Robert D Kaplan wrote in ‘Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power’ (2010): “The monsoon is nature writ large, a spectacle of turbulence that suggests the effect of the environment on humankind living in increasingly crowded and fragile conditions in places like Bangladesh and Indonesia”.
Can the millennia old monsoonal pattern in the Indian Ocean be significantly disrupted by today’s accelerated climate change? I posed this question to Dr Janaka Ratnasiri, senior atmospheric physicist.
His short answer: “The monsoon system is potentially sensitive to global warming, and model studies have confirmed increase in monsoon activity with increase in carbon dioxide concentration.”
Projections made in the Fourth Assessment Report of the UN climate panel (IPCC) show that South Asian precipitation — rain, sleet, hail, snow and other forms of water falling from the sky – is increasing in the summer months while decreasing in during winter.
Dr Ratnasiri adds, “This means we will get more rain during Southwest monsoon and less rain during Northeast monsoon in the foreseeable future. However, with the natural variability characteristic of monsoons, one cannot definitely say whether climate change has already disrupted the monsoon system.”
Some of the best scientific minds and fastest supercomputers in our region are currently searching for deeper insights. At stake is the health and wealth of whole nations.
In April, the Indian government launched its National Monsoon Mission, a major scientific effort to better understand and anticipate the monsoons. Under this, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) will collaborate with weather research organisations internationally to improve monsoon forecast for the country.
The mission’s focus is on developing a dynamic model for monsoon prediction. The Indian government has earmarked INR 4 billion (nearly USD 71 million) for this endeavour over the next five years.
M Rajeevan, a leading Indian monsoon expert who heads the Monsoon Mission, is confident that improved climatic models will make it possible to predict droughts. “Fallout of droughts like those of 2004 and 2009 could be prevented if we’re able to warn farmers in advance,” Down to Earth magazine quoted him as saying in early May.
That can literally make a huge difference in India, where 60% of farming is rain-fed — and current statistical models don’t meet farmers’ weather information needs.
Scientists and policy makers in Sri Lanka should follow these developments. After all, the monsoon is a shared heritage that binds us much more than the recent — and still tenuous — regional alliances like SAARC.
I first heard the phrase “children of the monsoon” used at a South Asian conference in Pakistan in 1998. Four years later, my friends at Development Alternatives in India used it to brand the South Asia State of the Environment 2002 (youth version).
As I finish writing this on the morning of May 25, I hear the unmistakable signs of rolling thunder and lashing rain. In awe, I join generations of writers – from Kipling to Kaplan – to welcome another summer monsoon.
When they come roaring inland, the monsoons don’t care for our political borders, imaginary labels or other factors that often divide us.
In the planetary scheme of things, we are ALL children of the Monsoon.