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Kerala faces severe rainfall deficit amid early monsoon,  climate change woes

Kerala's southwest monsoon arrived early but disappointed with a significant rainfall deficit, following a long-term drying trend due to El Niño conditions.

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
Kerala Monsoon

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The southwest monsoon arrived early on May 30. However, it disappointed Kerala with a significant rainfall deficit. This deficit follows a long-term drying trend due to factors El Nino conditions which are known for causing deficient rainfall in India. 

Kerala, known for its tropical monsoon climate, receives around 3,000 mm of rainfall annually, with over 68% occurring between June and September. However, this year from June 1 to June 9, Kerala received 22% less rainfall than normal. Data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) shows that out of the 14 districts in the state, nine experienced deficient rain (20% to 50% less than normal or large deficient rainfall (60% to 99% less than normal). Kollam district had the highest deficit at 53%, followed by Alapuzha with a 45% deficit. Four districts received normal rains (19% less than normal to 19% more than normal). 

According to the government of Kerala's noticeboard magazine KERALA CALLING 2024, The 2011-2020 decade was the warmest and driest in Kerala, affecting the production of plantation crops. 2016 was the warmest, followed by 1987 and 1983.

Decreasing trend

In 2023, the four-month-long monsoon season in Kerala concluded with a 34% rainfall deficit, marking it as the third-largest monsoon deficit in the state in 123 years of recorded weather history.  Below-normal rainfall at the start of the monsoon season has been a recurring challenge for Kerala.  The lack of rain has severely impacted agriculture in Kerala. Some reports suggested at least a 30% drop in paddy cultivation in 2023. Cash crops like tubers and coffee have also been affected. 

Declining annual and monsoon rainfall, along with rising temperatures, affect rainfed rice production in Kerala. Monsoon onset variability changes planting dates, and drought during reproductive stages can lead to crop failure. Thermal regimes also impact rice growth, development, and productivity. According to a study, a 1°C temperature rise reduces paddy yields by 10%, showing the adverse effects of warmer nights on rice production. Floods during the Virippu season– starting in April-May and extending up to September-October– also threaten rice production. The Monsooned Malabar coffee, cured by monsoon rain, has seen its quality diminish due to erratic rainfall.

Dr P O Nameer, Dean of the College of Climate Change and Environmental Science at Kerala Agricultural University, said,

"The coffee quality is better if the monsoon is heavy and continuous during July-August over the Malabar region."

Kerala Agriculture

A study by the Indian Meteorological Society indicates that over 100 years, Kerala has experienced a decreasing trend of 10.9 cm (about 4.3 inches) in its summer monsoon rainfall. As per the data, Kerala experienced deficient rainfall during 15 southwest monsoon seasons between 1901 and 2023, with the year 1918 recording the lowest rainfall at, 1,104.3 mm compared to the current average of 2,018.7 mm. 

Trend analysis shows declining monsoon rainfall with increased post-monsoon rainfall. However, the latter may not compensate for the monsoon season. The post-monsoon rains occur from October to December and may not align with the agricultural cycles that depend on the monsoon rains.

Is climate change the reason?

Climate change has worsened issues in Kerala, causing reduced rainfall, loss of wetlands, and biodiversity decline. 

In 2016 (an El Niño year), Kerala had the worst rainfall deficit, with a poor northeast monsoon season. Though 2023 was also an El Niño year, like 2016, the northeast monsoon tried to compensate for previous deficits. The late surge didn’t compensate for the rain deficiency in the other seasons, leading to plummeting water levels in Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) reservoirs.  El Niño's drying effect is expected to lead to a harsh summer across the state, potentially threatening the monsoon. However, its impact is counterbalanced by a favourable sea surface condition called the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), which contributes to increased rainfall from October to December.

"Climate change is constant, but the monsoon is in the first week so far in Kerala. The catchment areas are expected to receive good rainfall in July. The decrease in rainfall in recent years was due to El Niño in the Indian Ocean," said Abhilash Joseph, Kerala Agricultural University  Precision Farming Development Centre, Tavanur Ph.D.

In districts like Palakkad, Wayanad, and Idukki, the rainfall deficit ranges from 54% to 62%, severely affecting paddy cultivation, irrigation, and hydropower generation.

S Usha, an agricultural researcher working with paddy cultivation collectives in Mannathawady, Wayanad, said, 

"We are facing drinking water and irrigation scarcity in Wayanad. Paddy farms are drying up, and the crops are wilting while drinking water scarcity is a significant issue across the hill district."

Temperature projections show real warming in Kerala, with a significant increase since the 1980s in line with global warming. The erratic rainfall pattern, and climate change impacts highlight the need for better weather-based forewarning at the district level through collaboration between the India Meteorological Department (IMD) and Kerala Agricultural University (KAU).

"We farmers can predict the future by studying present realities. Kerala is heading towards a disaster with no rains, deficient electricity, and agricultural generation," said Minhaj Pacheeri, a farmer from Cheeral village in Wayanad told Ground Report on the phone.

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