Witnessing Climate Change in the Indian Subcontinent

Author: Divya Malhotra, Additional Comptroller & Auditor General (retd), Currently a Key Associate at Changescape Consulting

Abstract: The Indian subcontinent has experienced a prolonged heat wave, followed by a monsoon with large variations spatially and associated with heavy rainfall events and subsequent floods in the year 2022. Such adverse weather conditions have destabilized the ecosystem and opened the space to reassess the question of climate change and its consequences on agriculture. In this article, Divya Malhotra recommends an amended policy which takes into account the impact of climate change and modifies agricultural practices in order to adapt to the changes.


In the past couple of months, the term “climate change” has been mentioned very frequently in the context of the Indian subcontinent.1 Recent studies have unequivocally concluded that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land, resulting in widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere.2 The Indian subcontinent has witnessed changes in its weather patterns over time.

In 2022, the subcontinent faced an unusually early and prolonged heat wave which resulted in the hottest month of March faced by India and Pakistan since 1901.3 The intense heat continued into the rest of the summer months (April to June) in India and Pakistan, with cities in both countries reporting temperatures between 45°C and 50°C.4 Delhi also experienced a brutal heatwave. In various parts of Delhi, the temperatures breached 49°C for the first time in mid-May. The heat was prolonged and widespread and coupled with below-average rainfall, killing at least 90 people (25 in India and 65 in Pakistan). Rainfall was only a quarter to a third of the normal. It was not just the severity of the temperatures, but also how early in the year they appeared and for how long they lasted.5 World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas stated that, “The extreme heat in India and Pakistan is consistent with what we expect in a changing climate. Heatwaves are more frequent and more intense and starting earlier than in the past.”6 Studies consistently indicate that heat waves are growing more severe around the world as global temperatures rise, and are projected to worsen in the future.

Global warming also impacts the monsoon system as warmer air can hold more moisture, making monsoon rainfall more intense. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections suggest that the mean monsoon may remain very robust in future, but the frequency of heavy rainfall events and length of dry spells will increase. Experts say that extreme events like flash floods as witnessed recently in Bangalore are expected to intensify in future due to global warming.7

In 2022, India received a normal monsoon with an overall surplus of 6% rainfall.  There were, however, large variations both spatially and over the entire monsoon period. According to the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the year has seen the second-highest extreme weather events since 1902.8 There have been floods in a large number of states due to heavy rainfall events. Most of the states of south and central India received excess rain, with the east and north-east reporting a rainfall deficit. Uttar Pradesh, especially eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand received substantially lesser rainfall than normal.9 Not only has the monsoon become more erratic with fewer rainy days and more intense rainy days, it is now also spilling over to October instead of being confined to the June-September period. Thus, we have had floods in one part of the country while other parts have experienced drought.

The neighboring country of Pakistan, which is watered by the same monsoon, has been devastated by floods since June of 2022, with one-third of the country under water even 2 months later.  These floods have been described as ‘one of the worst faced by the country’ engulfing entire villages and farmlands, razing buildings and wiping out crops and killing about 1200 people. They were caused by heavier than usual monsoon rain in Pakistan especially in Baluchistan and Sindh. Baluchistan and Sindh, which are considered generally dry areas, received more than three times rain than their 30-year average of monsoon rain.

The excess rainfall was exacerbated by record breaking glacial melt caused by the prolonged heat wave in the early part of the year. Global warming is accelerating the loss of Himalayan glaciers much faster than scientists previously thought, destabilizing a fragile ecosystem that has helped regulate the earth’s atmosphere and key water cycles for millennia.10   The Himalayan range, shelters the largest reserve of frozen freshwater outside the North and South poles. The extreme heat is melting the glaciers in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions rapidly creating more than 3000 lakes, with 33 of them at risk of bursting and releasing millions of cubic meters of water.11

The glacier melt is also impacting the mountainous country of Nepal. Nepal has lost a quarter of its glacial area between 1980 and 2010 according to an ICIMOD (International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development) study using satellite data. This has been accompanied by higher temperatures and lesser snow on the mountains resulting in a lowering of the water table. When glaciers melt, they form lakes. Satellite data show an increase in the number of glacial lakes in the Himalayas with most formed during latter half of the 20th century. Communities living near these lakes face risks of glacial lake outburst.12

Developing nations, responsible for a fraction of historical greenhouse gas emissions, are paying the price for the industrialised countries that have prospered at the cost of the planet. The prolonged heat wave and the massive floods in Pakistan are a warning sign that this is the point that we have to turn back.

Impact of Climate Change

Climate change is affecting every inhabited region across the globe, resulting in changes in the weather pattern and climate extremes.13 The Indian monsoon is also showing a change in the pattern of rainfall, with fewer and more intense rainy days and a tendency to linger into October, instead of being limited between June and September. This has been officially recognized by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) who pushed back the expected dates of withdrawal of the monsoon for North, Northwest and Central India by one to two weeks to account for the trends witnessed over the last 50 years. One possible reason for the spillover of monsoon rainfall to October could be the fact that the oceans (Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea) are now warmer than earlier and help keep the monsoon alive for a longer period of time.14

Monsoon rain is a key player in the Indian economy, impacting both agriculture and the supply of drinking water. Agriculture is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Climate change is increasing the unpredictability of crop outputs. This is likely to affect food security of countries and also impact public policy.15 The prolonged heat wave in India adversely impacted the wheat output forcing the country to protect domestic food grain security and ban wheat exports. This in turn adversely impacted global wheat prices. The monsoon deficit over eastern India also limited the kharif sowing of rice, as the monsoon season irrigates more than half of India’s kharif crop in areas that lack irrigation.16 Policy changes have already been made even before sowing of rice is complete to discourage its exports by levying customs duty and an outright ban in export of broken rice.

A Strategy for Adaptation

Policy will increasingly need to take into account the impact of climate change and also take steps to modify agricultural practices in order to adapt to the changes. The amendments need to both reduce agriculture’s impact due to climate change and be able meet food security for the people. Climate change adaptation for agricultural cropping systems requires a higher resilience against both excess of water (due to high intensity rainfall) and lack of water (due to extended drought periods).17

FAO promotes no- or low-tilled soil to preserve soil organic matter and reduce impact of flooding, drought, heavy rain and winds. They also recommend the use of crop rotations, agro-forestry, hedges, vegetative buffer strips etc. Studies have shown that soil organic matter, both improve and stabilize the soil structure so that the soil can absorb higher amounts of water without causing surface run off. It also improves the water absorption capacity of the soil for during extended drought.

In India, Vanya Organics, through their farms at Khalghat, Madhya Pradesh, has successfully implemented multi-layer farming along with the practices of no tilling, no chemical fertilizers, no weeding and mixed cropping. This type of farming has regenerated the soil and is low cost and sustainable and increased productivity of agriculture by 100 to 300%. They also encourage natural bee hives in order to increase farm productivity. These principles are also a solution to climate change as soil is the largest sequester of carbon after the oceans. No tilling encourages microbes, earthworms etc. These practices are also in line with those recommended by the FAO and can be adapted to different ecosystems.

Changes in the period and duration of the monsoon require follow-up action from the agriculture sector. These changes may not just affect the preferred time of sowing of crops, but the entire cropping cycle — even the choice of crops — might need to be changed.


  1. The Indian subcontinent consists of the countries of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
  2. Cryosphere is the frozen water part (including solid precipitation, snow, sea ice, lake and river ice, icebergs, glaciers and ice caps, ice sheets, ice shelves, permafrost, and seasonally frozen ground) in the earth system. See: IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. In Press.
  3. The month of March generally marks the beginning of summer season in the Indian subcontinent.
  4. See: World Meteorological Organization, “Climate change made heatwaves in India and Pakistan ’30 times more likely’”. May 24, 2022. Retrieved from: https://public.wmo.int/en/media/news/climate-change-made-heatwaves-india-and-pakistan-30-times-more-likely
  5. Chelsea, Harvey, “Astonishing heat grips India and Pakistan.” Scientific American. May 3, 2022. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/astonishing-heat-grips-india-and-pakistan/#
  6. World Meteorological Organization, 2022.
  7. Dr. Madhavan Rajeevan, “Monsoon Mysteries: Deciphering the Seasonal and Geographic Variability of Indian Monsoon Rains”, The Weather Channel, 23 June 2022,. Retrieved from: https://weather.com/en-IN/india/monsoon/news/2022-06-22-deciphering-the-seasonal-and-geographic-variability-of-indian-monsoon
  8. Richa Sharma, “Extreme weather conditions to intensify, says experts”, The New Indian Express, 1 September, 2022. Retrieved from: https://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2022/sep/01/extreme-weather-conditions-to-intensify-sayexperts-2493605.html
  9. Shekhar, Gupta, “Climate catastrophe of biblical size next to India – Pakistan’s monstrous floods & China’s droughts”, Youtube, Uploaded by ThePrint, 29 August 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDo_5qzFK1c
  10. Archana Chaudhury and Aaron Clark. “Record-breaking Himalayan Melt Worsen’s Pakistan’s Deadly Floods”. NDTV. September 2, 2022. Retrieved from: https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/record-breaking-himalayan-melt-worsens-pakistans-deadly-floods-3308780
  11. Georgina Rannard, “How Pakistan floods are linked to climate change”, BBC News, 2 September, 2022. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-62758811
  12. Johan Augustin, “As its glaciers melt, Nepal is forced into an adaptation not of its choosing”, Mongabay, 27 December 2021. Retrieved from: https://news.mongabay.com/2021/12/as-its-glaciers-melt-nepal-is-forced-into-an-adaptation-not-of-its-choosing/#:~:text=Between%201980%20and%202010%2C%20Nepal,being%20replaced%20by%20new%20snow.
  13. IPCC, 2021.
  14. Amitav Sinha, “The lingering monsoon”, The Indian Express. 12 October 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.msn.com/en-in/news/in-depth/the-lingering-monsoon/ar-AA12QQ5A?ocid=weather-verthp-feeds
  15. Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations (FAO), Adaptation to Climate Change in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries: Perspective, Framework and Priorities. 2007.
  16. Kharif crops are also known as monsoon or autumn crops requiring good amount of rainfall. They are domesticated plants, such as jowar, maize, rice, that are cultivated and harvested in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh during the Indian subcontinent’s monsoon season.
  17. FAO, 2007.



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