How Climate Change and the Monsoons Affect India’s Blackouts

India's blackouts have left nearly 700 million people without power. The unstable monsoons are adding to demand for electricity—and climate change could disrupt the summer rains even further.

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Blame it on the rain—at least partially. Northern India has been plagued by prolonged blackouts over the past few days that have left some 600 million people without regular power. The electrical grid has never covered the entire country—around 300 million of India’s 1.2 billion citizens lack access to regular electricity—and isolated blackouts are common even in urban areas that normally get juice. But the collapse of the grid this week is something else, spreading to 22 of the country’s 28 states, with much of the capital of New Delhi plunged into darkness, hundreds of trains left dead in their tracks and car stalled thanks to the failure of traffic lights.

Though India’s regular experience with blackouts make it that much more able to deal with a prolonged power loss like this one—hospitals, offices and even homes have backup diesel generators and make frequent use of them—the disaster will make it that much harder to buy into the idea that the second-most populous country in the world is ready to compete with China on the global stage. Said Chandrajit Banerjee, director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, in a statement:

As one of the emerging economies of the world, which is home to almost a sixth of the world population, it is imperative that our basic infrastructure requirements are in keeping with India’s aspirations. The developments of yesterday and today have created a huge dent in the country’s reputation that is most unfortunate.

What’s behind the blackout? It’s not clear yet, though India’s rickety power grid is hardly invulnerable to stress. And that stress may be increasing, as growing industry and personal use in an increasingly rich India—think air conditioners to cool the subcontinent—outpace India’s ability to actually generate electricity.

(MORE: How the Changing Monsoon is Changing India)

And that’s where the monsoon could become a major problem. The great summer storms—which provide three-quarters of India’s annual rainfall—came late to the country this year, leaving much of northern India gripped in a killer drought and unrelenting heat. While the slow monsoons are unlikely to have directly caused the blackouts—the rains finally began to fall recently, enough to reduce temperatures—parched farmers in agricultural areas are turning to electric pumps in large numbers to bring groundwater to the surface for irrigation. If the monsoons continue to be erratic and slow in a global warming future, the demand for electricity to compensate for the heat and the drought will only increase.

But what will climate change do to the monsoons? Like many regional impacts, that’s difficult for scientists to predict, especially since weather data on the monsoons in South Asia is still lacking, as the Economist pointed out in an article last week:

Too little is known about summer weather systems on the subcontinent. India is short of observation stations, weather planes, satellites, climate scientists and modellers. The government and foreign donors are scrambling to make amends. But even with better data, monsoons are ill-understood once they leave the sea or low-lying land. At altitude, notably, for instance, approaching the Himalayas, it is far trickier to grasp just how factors such as wind direction, air pressure, latent heating and moisture levels interact to deliver monsoon rains.

We do know that India, like the rest of the planet, has gotten hotter over the past six decades as man-made greenhouse gases have warmed the atmosphere. All other things being equal, that should lead to more precipitation—a hotter atmosphere means more evaporation and can hold more water. For the monsoons, the fact that the land is heating up faster than the oceans should actually draw in more moisture, which in turn should mean stronger monsoons. But that hasn’t happened yet.

(MORE: How the Heat Wave Is Stressing Out the Electricity Grid)

It’s possible that the huge cloud of particulates in the air above India, made up of everything from coal dust to biomass from the burning of cow dung and firewood, could actually be reducing rainfall, blunting the increase that might otherwise come from overall warming. If that cloud of aerosols and black carbon keeps growing—and there’s been little success yet in cleaning up India’s air—the effects could grow more pronounced. It’s also possible that warming could shift the center of the monsoon eastward, moving more of the rain into the Pacific Ocean—robbing India’s farmers of their precipitation they desperately need.

The bigger concerns, though, might be the increase of extreme monsoon events—both rainfall and periods of drought. According to a literature review published in Nature Climate Change in June, most research shows a decrease in moderate rainfall events since 1950, and a corresponding increase in extreme events. That could mean more catastrophic events like the great Bombay floods of 2005, after some of the strongest monsoon rains in history, and it could mean more prolonged droughts like the one northern India has struggled through this summer.

While India isn’t as dependent on agriculture as it once was—one reason why this summer’s drought hasn’t hurt the country’s economy as much as in the past—over 600 million Indians still work in farming. The monsoons give India life—and if climate change were to take them away, or even just alter them greatly, the country will have more than blackouts to worry about in the future.

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