06/18/2013 04:37 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2013

Monsoon Magic and When It Goes Wrong: Extreme Rain Events, Floods and Water Futures

There is one being-Indian thing that spans the urban or rural, rich and poor divide: our annual watch and wait for the monsoons. It begins every year, without a fail, as heat climbs, and monsoons advance. The farmers wait desperately because they need the rain, at the right time, to sow their crops. Without this water, they cannot plant. The city managers wait because by the beginning of each monsoon period, the water reservoirs that feed cities are precariously low. They need the rain to replenish supply. All of us wait, in spite of our air-conditioned living, for the relief rain will bring to the swelter of the scorching heat and dust. This is perhaps the only time when the entire country is enjoined in its desperation. It cannot exhale till it rains.

But even though this phenomenon called the monsoons is so important in every Indian's life we know little about it. Scientists are still squabbling about the definition of monsoon -- the only one they have is seasonal winds, which have regular directions and they get flummoxed when this changes.

This lack of knowledge of nature's ways is at the core of the environmental crisis. Today we use concentrated energy sources like coal or oil that have created enormous problems like local air pollution and global climate change. If we understood the ways of nature, we would shift to weaker sources of energy, like solar or move to using rainfall, not wait till it is concentrated in rivers or in aquifers. Just consider how nature uses weak forces rather than concentrated forces to do its work. It takes a very tiny temperature differences to carry as much as 40,000 billion tons of water from the oceans and across thousands of miles to dump it as rainfall over the Indian subcontinent as the monsoon.

In other words, the more we understand the monsoons of our lives, the more we will understand how to move from just unraveling nature to imitating its way and to build a way of development that is sustainable.

The other big water management question is if we know how to live without the monsoons? After some 60-plus years of independence and after considerable investment in creating surface irrigation systems, the bulk of Indian agriculture remains rainfed. This literally means that farmers wait to sow and plant and harvest on the mercies of this extremely capricious and undependable god. But this is not even the full picture. What is not said is that between 60 to 80 percent of the irrigated area is watered by groundwater -- a resource, which needs the rain to recharge and refill its supply. This is why, every year, as the monsoon progresses, from Kerala to Kashmir or Bengal to Rajasthan, hearts stop beating if it halts, slows or dies. The words "low pressure" and "depressions" are part of the Indian lexicon. The monsoon is and will remain India's true finance minister.

For too long Indian water policy has tried hard to disengage with rain -- depend instead on irrigation brought in canals from dams and reservoirs built over snow-fed rivers. But it is time to reinvent this relationship. Instead of wanting to reduce dependence, we should celebrate our enjoinment with this rain creature -- we should deepen our engagement with the monsoon. Our monsoon lexicon must expand so that we harvest the rain -- every drop of it where and when it falls.

This becomes critical in the face of changing weather patterns. Indians are beginning to see extreme weather events break all around them. This year, the monsoons have arrived early and in force. Rivers are in spate, resulting in landslides, floods and devastation all over the Himalayan states of the country. Lives have been lost. Property destroyed.

The emerging science tells us climate change impacts will lead to increased intensity of rain events -- there will be more rain, but it will come in shorter number of rainy days. In other words, it will not rain, but pour. The opportunity lies in making sure that every drop of the rain is harvested for future economic use. Since rain will come in more ferocious events we must engineer for its storage and drainage. Channelizing, holding rainwater will have to be our obsession. Our future depends on it.