Droughts in India were caused by El Nio

Richard Grove , a noted environmental historian from the Australian National University, Canberra, takes an active interest in the climatic and ecological aspects of India's colonial history. He firmly believes that an ecological assessment of the past is urgently needed to understand the current environmental crisis. Grove recently spoke to Max Martin in New Delhi about his latest work -- how El Nio, an irregular warm current occurring in the equatorial Pacific, has sparked off droughts in India and elsewhere

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

On the study on El Nio and Indian droughts:
I started looking at the history of droughts in the Madras presidency in great detail (to study the possible link with El Nio) after I came across papers relating to William Roxburgh and Alexander Beatson, both officials of the East India Company. Beatson had written a book in 1815, in which he indicates that severe droughts had occurred in several parts of the world in early 1790s and that they had a common pattern. He also mentioned about drought conditions in Mathura. I also read about similar conditions in central America where there were severe droughts in Mexico during the same period. I think some of the droughts, particularly those in India, were caused by El Nio.

On the link between El Nio and droughts:
We do not know much about the relationship between El Nio and droughts in the past. There is a certain interconnection. We do not really understand what El Nio is, anyway. It is related to the dynamics of ocean currents in the Pacific and it possibly had an enormous impact globally, especially in the last 10 years. People are now realising its impact on climates, particularly on monsoons. This knowledge about El Nio is absolutely vital to understanding the Indian climate, especially the climate of southeast India.

On whether climatologists accept this fact:
Oh yes. It is a well-accepted fact. One of the important institutes which understands this is the Australian meteorological office in Melbourne. Some of the most important conferences on El Nio have been held in Melbourne. South African meteorologists are now trying to predict drought in their country. They know when El Nio breaks in Australia, they are going to face drought a few months later. Indian meteorologists are also very much aware of the importance of El Nio, though very few people think about it historically.

On the impact of the findings of ecological history on the world view:
It has had lot of impact. In the 1790s, people did not necessarily know what was going on (in global climate). Many thought that the climatic changes might be related to deforestation which was taking place very rapidly in all those places. That is why, in 1791, forest reserves were declared in the West Indies. In India, planting of trees was undertaken in a big way. We now know that perhaps it (drought) had nothing to do with deforestation.

On the criticism of his paper on the subject:
I think it interested a lot of people. It is some of the archaeologists who were puzzled by it. I think they had not worked out the mechanisms of the monsoon. Indian monsoons are related to El Nio. When you get a strong El Nio, the monsoons fail. It is possible to demonstrate that historically. The big-gest famines in Indian history we know about are all associated with El Nio. All major droughts accompanied by famine in southeast India were related to El Nio. If you look at the impact of El Nio in the 20th century, for instance, in 1982-83 (when India had severe droughts), almost everywhere climatic changes were associated with it.

On the relevance of El Nio to global climate:
It is relevant for studying the impact of global warming. We have to sort out what we think of as evidence for increased aridity and temperature from normal cycles of El Nio. Global warming might bring El Nio to an end. El Nio is only 5,000 years old, anyway. Going by the geological time-scale, it is very young. You cannot say anything useful about the future unless you know the history of climate. What I would say is that we have evidence of a single force operating across half the globe.

On the documentation of the drought of 1791:
There are very reliable sources because officials in Madras were keeping continuous meteorological records from 1776 onwards. Before that, the Portuguese had maintained continuous rainfall records as well as daily weather records in Goa from the beginning of colonisation (1510) till the 1950s. They are enormously important. I based my studies on reports from the district of northern Madras presidency, Roxburgh's data, newspaper reports and revenue reports. The Times , London, had regular reports from India. There are also revenue reports from the East India Company which sent out its agents to investigate the effect of drought in 1792.

On the possibility of reconstructing the climate of the past:
You can reconstruct it in great detail. You can, in fact, reconstruct the climatic history of India back to the 10th century quite easily. We have lot of records about famines that go back to the sixth century. The first person to have looked at famines in great detail was Charles Danvers in 1877, in a document called The Century of Famines . He traces the history of famines during 1770-1870.

There is another book called The History and Economics of Indian Famines published in 1914. It takes Danvers' record back to ad 297 and gives accounts of the famines in Magadha and Kashmir up to ad 500. It also gives a great deal of information about the famine in ad 917-918, which was reported globally. Famines also occurred all over India and in some parts of the world in ad 1033. I think that the last one was an El Nio effect. I want to check that against the record of the Nile levels. You see, from the Pharaohs' time, Egyptians had a water-level recording station. A lot of work has been done on the Nile records.

On the role of environmental historians:
There are historians who looked at environmental history in a missionary kind of way. Some of them were environmental activists. The emergence of environmental history in the us is closely connected to environmental activism since the early 1970s. There are many environmental activists in India, who have shown a lot of interest in environmental history. It is very difficult to know whether they change things through new concepts.

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