Interview with Dr. Mannava V.K. Sivakumar, Chief of Agricultural Meteorology Division of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)


Dr. Mannava V.K. Sivakumar, Chief of the Agricultural Meteorology Division of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) speaks to Namitha Dipak of DRYNET on September 7th, 2007 at Madrid, Spain. Videography courtesy Silke Brehm. An edited version of the interview appears here.

dr sivakumar

Climate is serious business these days, and Dr. Mannava V.K. Sivakumar is amply qualified to give us a bird’s eye view of climate change, and how some regions of the world are coping with it. In this conversation, Dr. Sivakumar discusses drought and the need for better spatial coverage of meteorological stations. He emphasizes that meteorological information has to be useful to the end user to enable them to act on it, adding that agricultural extension and NGOs networks have an important role to play in this transfer of knowledge. He highlights the preparedness levels of some Scandinavian countries to cope with climate change, which is a result of their focus on a win-win situation. Dr. Sivakumar lives in Switzerland, but his deep concern and ideas about India and its challenges in the climate change scenario were evident. Clearly, there is an urgent need to bridge the gap in knowledge levels and capacity in different countries, and the time to act is now, not 2010 or 2015.

ND: Recently the Minister for Science and Technology of India announced that “real-time” crop monitoring would be put in place in the country, and this could help to detect the onset of drought as well. It has apparently been started in one state and will be extended to other states over a period of time. What is your opinion on this, and how can we make such monitoring more effective?

MVKS: When we talk of drought monitoring, we have to look at the agricultural community that produces crops, the pastoral community who keep livestock or go from area to area searching for fodder, and of course the impact on forestry and fisheries. So it depends on what kind of monitoring you want to put in place in order to cover everything. For instance, is the drought confined to a small area or a district in Gujarat, or entire Gujarat or the entire north India? We have to see the intensity and magnitude and then of course the impacts.

Also, if you talk of drought monitoring, you must have very precise meteorological information on the various parameters, especially rainfall. Where rainfall is concerned, there are two aspects: the temporal and the spatial. Temporal is something like what was the rainfall last month, what is it this month? What is the normal rainfall for next month? Are we 40 per cent below the normal?

A very important aspect is spatial rainfall – how rainfall varies in space. This is where in many countries you do not have a good strong observation networks.

You said that the spatial coverage must be increased in your speech during the CST on the 6th of September.

Yes, I did. The important thing when we are talking about drought impacts and trying to mitigate them is to have a good spatial information…so for that you need to have a good network of meteorological stations.

Are you talking of India specifically, or will this apply to any country?

I am talking of any country. When you talk of the problem of drought, many times it crosses national borders. If you have drought in India, very likely you might have drought in Pakistan; or if it is in the eastern side, it could mean Bangladesh. And if you are talking of drought in a region like West Africa, many countries are affected. After all, climate knows no national boundaries…the boundaries are something we created. Atmosphere does not have boundaries.

Another important thing about drought, as opposed to floods, is that it is what is called a “creeping phenomenon”. A flood comes and hits, and you see an impact very clearly within minutes or hours, and the flood passes away. Drought on the other hand is called “creeping” because the onset is not clear, and the ending is not clear. In floods you have structural damage …it washes away houses and it is visible – structural – bridges get washed away, you see cars floating, these are very striking images.

Just like a hurricane or tornado…

Exactly, but when it comes to droughts, the impacts are not structural. Of course you do see withering crops and other indicators, but these are not as striking. That is why when it comes to droughts, people tend to be a bit lazy. So, to come back to your question, when it comes to drought, any kind of monitoring that will give us an accurate picture of the spatial extent of drought and impacts, is very important. This monitoring will help us mitigate and measure the impacts. For example in India, if the drought happens in the South West monsoon time, then what kind of adjustments do we need to make for the North East monsoon? This is called contingency management: contingent on the drought happening, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to change your cropping patterns to meet the shortfall? In a given region, let us say you are growing maize, and there is a shortfall, so what are you going to do about it in the following season? Many areas in India depend on irrigation, so in the post-rainy season, a contingency plan can be put in place.

Is the WMO in any way interacting with the Indian government on this?

Well, the Indian Meteorological Department(IMD) is a member of the WMO. All countries around the world are members, and this doesn’t mean just the meterological department of a country. All departments in a country will also come into the picture. Of course our main focus will be with the IMD, but we expect the department to bring in a countrywide perspective when they are interacting with us. So they need to bring in the agricultural department and perspectives from other departments.

To me, one of the buzz phrases during this COP appears to be “early warning systems”. How challenging is it to implement early warning systems in such a diverse geographical area like India?

Regarding early warning systems, today we have very good tools for our disposal, as opposed to about 30-40 years ago. We are now able to give you information on what will happen in the next three months, six months, maybe even up to a year. Five years ago, the accuracy of these seasonal forecasts was not as good, but more reliable forecasts are becoming available. Of course, these are not perfect forecasts, that is the reason they are given in terms of probability. A forecast will mention what is the probability that the rainy season, for instance in 2008, will be normal, above normal or below normal.

What does that mean for the common person?

For example, if I say that the rain in 2008 will be 30% below normal, what we then do is take the information and downscale it. We take the normal patterns in northern, eastern, western and southern India, and the information from the seasonal forecast and then downscale it. For example, in Andhra Pradesh(a state in southern India), if the average rainfall in Hyderabad area is 780mm, 30% above average would be about 1000mm. On the other hand, if in another year you have 30% below average, than it means you only get 500mm. If there is a farmer who is used to cultivating crops with an average rainfall of 700mm, what does he do when he has 500mm of rainfall? Or when he has 1000mm of rainfall? The value of such information is that he will be able to make decisions. He has to change the cropping system, the cropping pattern, he has to change the variety. If there is a forecast for below normal rainfall, then he might want to reduce the amount of fertilizer he puts on the crops because the situation is going to be drier. Earlier, let us say he was applying 90kg of nitrogen, now he can reduce it. Similarly he can reduce the area planted with crops.

That means that the farmers have to be trained to cope with this information.

Exactly. That is why when such forecasts are available, it is very important to bring in agricultural extension services. And also NGOs, like your DRYNET network as well.

You also pointed out that often data producers and end users do not often interact…

Yes, this is the most critical component now. Meteorological departments generally tend to be desk-bound because of the nature of their work. They are mainly people collecting data, analysing it and providing it to the user community. But what is important is that there should be strong interaction with the end user.

So are you saying that the scientific community is important, but to some extent, some kind of sociological balancing act needs to be done at the ground level?

Yes, that is why the two words, science and society always go together. Unfortunately, we tend to operate in two distinct arenas. We think sometimes that scientific activity and societal activity are different. To me, science and society go together. The benefits of science must come to society, otherwise science has no meaning. Similiarly these forecasts that I was talking about – the benefits of these forecasts must go to the users. So whichever department it is, agriculture, meteorology, or forestry etc., the main target should be: how do we help the user community? So in that framework, who are the actors? The farming community, NGOs, local help organizations and so on. We have to work with all these people.

And in a country like India with 1.04 billion people now, and very soon 1.1 billion people, our problems are going to be enormous. I think that we should never trivialize our problems, because the population is huge and even a small shortfall in production would have a large impact. Yes, we have an economic growth rate that is reasonable. But the agricultural growth rate is not at the same level. Our prime minister is very concerned that agricultural growth rate is stagnant. With a stagnant growth rate in agriculture, imagine the impact of adding a few million people to the existing population. Look at the enormity of the task.

We need to have a new paradigm. A new paradigm where people have to come together, departments have to come together, and technology has to be used for the purpose of public good. We all have to work for the public and concentrate on the public. How do we achieve that? That can only be through collaboration. And so how do we make the technological benefits reach the people? For that there are many ways to get from Point A to Point B, but sometimes the straight line is often the best. But for you to do that, you need to have a lot of cooperation to make it happen.

What about specific drought monitoring centres? Can you give an example of a country where such centres are running successfully?

Yes, the WMO has a history of this. We established two drought monitoring centres, one for East Africa in Nairobi, and the other for southern Africa in Harare. These were established back in the 1980s in response to the needs of these countries. Those drought monitoring centres have been operating since then.

Recently, the centre in Nairobi become part of a political entity called IGAD, a governmental authority on drought, which is for East African countries. Similiarly, the centre in Harare become part of the SDAC – the Southern African Development Community.

What these two centres do is look at the issue on a regional basis, but provide information to each country. In each of these regions, eastern and southern Africa, the countries are small. And they do not have the human and institutional capacity to generate forecasts or satellite information and provide them to the people themselves. That is why they went for this regional board, where you have one regional centre that is providing information to the countries in the region.

When it comes to India, think of our states as countries. That’s how we have to operate. Andhra Pradesh, the state where I come from, now has 70-80 million people. That’s more than the population of Switzerland. I live in Switzerland, and look at the infrastructure and the information that the Swiss government is providing to the people. Of course Switzerland is rich, but in terms of the scale, both countries are the same. The states of Uttar Pradesh or Madhya Pradesh in India have huge populations, sometimes much bigger than some of the bigger European countries. So at the state level then, we should not be thinking small. We should think big. Act big.

Take hard decisions, like you said in your speech?

Yes, we have to take hard decisions. There is a good example from Australia when they had to restore degraded land. Restoring degraded land is a not a trivial task. You have to tell people: now, come on, you better stop doing this. Don’t bring your cattle here. Don’t degrade this land. Change your cropping system. Do this and do that. The government has to come in with very strict guidelines. They must ensure that the guidelines are implemented and take hard decisions. People are not going to like it. Democracy does not merely mean freedom – it means freedom with responsibility. If I am given freedom I must also be responsible. Then I can enjoy my freedom and you can also enjoy your freedom.

Coming back to your question about drought monitoring centres, in my opinion, if we have to deal with climate related issues in future, every state government should have a climate impact unit. Not just at the central level. For instance, in India there is a National Disaster Management Authority at the Centre and every state has its functionary. But climate is going to be a very important issue for India not just now, but also in the future, so every state government should have a climate unit, where you look at the climate of the state, the problems with some of the climatic extreme events, future scenarios, and how to help our local communities at the village level, district level and so on to cope with the projected impacts. I come back to the point I made earlier : our states should behave like some of the smaller European countries. Really, the people should be empowered. We have a good panchayat system (local level governance system) in India. We have a very good democracy at all levels.

Would you say the rural awareness in India is increasing? For instance in a state like Andhra Pradesh, with so many agencies who are doing a lot of good work.

It is increasing, but I think we need a higher level of activity, because time is short. We should not relax, that is how I feel.

Could you give us an example of local efforts that are helping to mitigate the effects of climate change?

There are some examples emerging now from some of the Scandinavian countries. Scandinavian countries are more proactive than reactive to what are the likely impacts of climate change. They are looking at win-win situations. And that’s what we in India should also be looking at. A 2-3 degree increase in temperature – when translated to a local level – could mean something higher than 2-3 degrees. This 2-3 degree range is a global average. That is why some countries are taking very serious steps. They are already informing communities about the likely changes and how they should start shifting their cropping patterns. This summer is very warm, and the wine production in France is very seriously affected. So the wine producers in France and Italy are already looking at these issues. Similarly the wine producers in Switzerland are looking at this issue and exploring alternatives. So you are not going to wait for 2010 or 2015, you must start looking now.

The level of activism that you mention…can it be replicated elsewhere?

I think so. One important characteristic of people in India is resilience. Communities are resilient. When there is drought happening, communities are affected, but they are resilient. People help each other, somehow people try to cope with the situation, and a year or so later things get back to normal.

Can it be that this strength is also a failing (when it comes to preparedness)?

I don’t think we should let things drift that way.

In some cities in India, like Bangalore, the changing climate in a single lifetime is becoming fairly evident. From personal experience, it appears that there are more rainy days, unseasonal rains, and the summers are more intense in Bangalore. Is this the right time to perhaps launch some kind of a national level campaign to convert this awareness into preparedness?

Yes, this is why I said that we need a climate unit at every state level. I know that at the national level, some sort of working group has been established to look at this whole issue of climate change and what needs to be done. But for a country like India with a huge population, an effort at the national level is not good enough. We should bring it down to the state level and the district level, so that you build the awareness quickly. With every passing year, the enormity of the problem is going to be much higher so I don’t think we should wait and say let the national assessment be done and then let the states take the action and so on.

I think a similar procedure is followed for relief measures.

Relief is a little different – it is an economic issue. The centre has to provide the funds for the states and then it has to be distributed and so on. Building awareness is something different. Awareness does not have to wait for any economic help from anybody. Awareness has to be continuous. It is like a health issue, for example. If you are aware of a health issue you take care of yourself. Why do people get up and go for a jog, or walk? Or do yoga? It is because people are aware of the importance of doing these things. Similarly when it comes to climate change, the time has come for us to build the awareness quickly. State-wide, district-wide. India is an enormous country with many agro-ecological and agro-climatic zones. What you grow in the mountains you don’t grow on the plains. What you grow in the delta areas, you don’t grow inland. Every state produces a number of different food crops, there are different forest areas, and there is a lot of biodiversity. So I think we need to really bring it down to the state level quickly.

Have you had any discussion with anybody from the Indian government?

I have not had any opportunity to have an extensive discussion about this. Last year I had an opportunity to visit Kolkata. I know that the sea level rise is going to be an extremely serious issue for Bangladesh, and it won’t be too long before we start having migration from Bangladesh into India. So I asked a friend in Kolkata whether the West Bengal state government had any brainstorming on this issue. And he said no. To me it is a very important issue and they should do the brainstorming right now.

Could a political perspective to these migrations add a sense of urgency?

Well, even without any sea level rise there is migration, but imagine if there is a sea level rise, because the area is at sea level. Even a small rise will have an impact. It is a serious concern.

Finally, having such a worldview of climate and other geophysical aspects of the Earth as you do, I would think it might feel like being up in space. What motivates you and keeps you going when you are at work?

When it comes to work, I am constantly inspired by the way different countries face challenges. Some countries make the problem smaller and try to focus on overcoming it, while a similar problem may bog down other countries because they let it overwhelm them. This difference in the way countries handle similar situations is very inspiring to me.

Dr. Mannava V.K. Sivakumar, Chief of the Agricultural Meteorology Division of the World Meteorological Organization was present at the COP8(Conference of Parties) of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) that was held between 3-14th September at Madrid, Spain.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is a specialized UN agency that deals with weather and climate, operational hydrology and related geophysical sciences. It originated from the International Meteorological Organization (IMO) that was founded in 1873, and currently has a membership of 188 member states and territories.

Dr. Sivakumar is the WMO focal point for collaborative activities with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development(IFAD), and the Secretariats of the UNCCD and CBD. He has worked for over 20 years for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research(CGIAR). He is the recipient of the 2007 International Service in Agronomy Award of the American Society of Agronomy, which recognizes outstanding contributions in research, teaching, extension, or administration made outside of the USA by a currently active agronomist. According to a WMO press release, the ASA award has been given for the first time in its 40 year history to a scientist from a United Nations agency.

During the CST session on 6th September, Dr. Sivakumar gave a forceful speech summarizing the recommendations of the International Workshop on Climate and Land Degradation held at Arusha (Tanzania) in December 2006. A book “Climate and Land Degradation” co-edited by himself and Ndegwa Ndiang’ui was also presented then.

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