The Monsoon Mantra

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Welcoming the first rains in Chennai with a tribe of weathermen who have witnessed two man-made catastrophes in the past four years: the floods of 2015 and the water crisis that shut down parts of the city last month

IN THE HOT fug of a June afternoon, Pradeep John, Chennai’s not-quite-amateur proto-weatherman, looks anxiously out the cafe window as he stirs up a storm in his watermelon juice. He has places to be and many questions to field. It is the day after patchy rains over parts of the city broke a long dry spell, lasting, according to some reports, 196 days, although technically, it had rained on February 28th—all of 4-5 mm. The city’s distress, though, is far from doused. After a bad northeast monsoon left reservoirs at record lows and ticking down to Chennai’s very own Zero Day, water managers and administrators are still in denial over their role in turning an essential resource into a luxury dispensed by dubious tankers. On the knife-edge of a crisis, the city of 4.6 million now looks skyward for succour but rainclouds, like politicians, don’t always act in the interests of the people. Chennai does not get a lot of rain from the country’s primary monsoon season, which set in a week late last month, starting with Kerala. But when there are breaks in the monsoon, luckily for Tamil Nadu, thunderstorms pelt the state, which falls in the rainshadow region. Today, there is an upper air circulation (UAC) forming over the coast near Chennai and the sea breeze wafting in at a lower level seems primed to undercut the winds. Such a collision is known to cause thundershowers. To his 660,000 social media followers, John’s standout Facebook post of the day is like the sweet petrichor scenting Chennai after months: ‘Rain probability in Chennai from today till next six days. Not all spells will be widespread and don’t expect rain in north Chennai when it is raining in south Chennai. At least, each place in the city will get at least 2-3 rainy days.’

“It is the first time since the floods of 2015 that people are glued to the weather. And it’s not just because they want to know if they can dry clothes or park their cars outside. I have had 300,000-400,000 views from people desperate to know how the two monsoons of the year will pan out and if they will solve the water crisis,” says John, 37. In 2015, John, who blogs by the name Tamil Nadu Weatherman, didn’t have a single grey hair. Today his hair and beard are flecked with white and he bears only a vague resemblance to his display picture online. “It’s the stress of going wrong with a weather prediction, especially when so many hopes are riding on you,” says John, reluctant darling of film crews and politicians who ring him up to find out if rain could ruin their shoots and rallies. A deputy manager at Tamil Nadu Urban Infrastructure Financial Services (TNUIFS), John has sedulously worked his way into the canon of weather blogging since 2007, bridging the gap between the Indian met department and the citizens of Chennai by putting out accessible, neatly wound forecasts of weather events and primers on climatology. His posts intersperse weather maps with colloquialisms to demystify weather phenomena—say, how ‘the sea breeze deivam [god]’ could prove to be Chennai’s saviour on a hot day by lending moisture to clouds and causing convective rainfall between June and September. “Chennai’s weather is constantly making headlines now. A distant low pressure forms and it’s flash news. That’s how badly we want rain, and weathermen are in vogue,” John says.

Chennai has never before been so unprepared for the whimsy of the retreating monsoon. The choking undergrowth of the city and covering of lakes and swamps that once stored excess water for drier months have amplified the crisis to a state of emergency

Even a little rain lacquering the streets is occasion for joy, but as soon as the storm passes, so does the short-lived euphoria. Reality presses against the window. Schools, colleges, hospitals and workplaces are crippled by water scarcity. About 900 tankers have been deployed by the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board to make 9,000 trips every day across the city to deliver water that it can no longer supply via pipes. The city is running on a deficit of 325 MLD of water per day, assuming it needs 830 MLD, some of it bridged by privately run tankers and borewells threatening to run dry. The reservoirs that pump life into Chennai—Red Hills, Cholavaram, Poondi and Chembarambakkam—are close to empty. Cauvery water from the New Veeranam Project and 100 MLD each from the Nemmeli and Minjur desalination plants, besides water from stone quarries in neighbouring districts and Krishna water from Andhra Pradesh, have kept drought at bay so far. The state government has now inaugurated a third, Rs 1,259-crore desalination plant with a 150-MLD capacity in Nemmeli and will float tenders for a fourth one by the end of the year. Meanwhile, trains are set to bring in 2 MLD of water every day from Jolarpet in Vellore, to the north. The urgency of a last resort has kicked in and newly installed rainwater-harvesting systems in apartments and factories—and picturesque rows of plastic pots lining some of the streets—are trying to save every drop from getting flushed into the sea via the stormwater drain network that the city is keen on expanding since the devastating floods of 2015. Citizens are writing plaintive social media posts about incipient water wars that could one day sunder the city. A hectoring opposition is strip-mining the issue of water management and urging the government to complete the long-delayed desilting of water bodies to enhance potential storage. If urban civilisation is the apex of human achievement, and cities are our way of passing on that achievement to the next generation, Chennai as a premier location of metropolitan culture and government has failed. It is not the rains that have failed Chennai.

Contrary to popular perception, Chennai’s tryst with rainfall is not a saga of unrequited love. The city receives an average annual rainfall of 1,383 mm, only about a third of it during the southwest monsoon season. The all-India yearly average is 1,187 mm. Delhi, in comparison, gets 800 mm annually, and Mumbai, currently in the throes of the monsoon, 2,168 mm. The southwest monsoon has rarely ever failed Chennai, but the northeast monsoon can disgorge ruinous volumes of water, as it did in 2015 when hundreds died in the floods that churned the city, or fall miserably short, like last year, when it brought less than half the expected rainfall. The problem is, Chennai has never before been so unprepared for the whimsy of the retreating monsoon. The choking undergrowth of the city, covering lakes and swamps that once stored excess water for drier months and a vestigial commitment to harvesting rainwater runoffs have amplified the crisis to a state of emergency. Watching the drama unfold despite their words of caution are a tribe of amateur weather bloggers who have their eyes and their automatic weather stations trained on the skies round the clock. They fill in for the lack of data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), which has about 8-10 stations across the city, most of them out of commission or awaiting maintenance. Bengaluru, in comparison, has over 100 state-run weather stations.

“Rain in Chennai has a fan base that’s very different from the predictable monsoon craze of Mumbai. For much of the year, Chennai has the most exciting weather in India. There is no dearth of cyclones, thunderstorms and weather events that are notoriously hard to predict,” says Rohit Santosh, 24, a weather blogger since 2009. Santosh is among a handful of bright young weather watchers who are actively pursuing meteorology as a career. After graduating in physics, Santosh opted for a master’s in applied meteorology from the University of Reading in the UK and he is set to top it off with a PhD in environmental and civil engineering from the University of Colorado. “There are enough experts and amateurs predicting rainfall, but few study where the rain water goes. I picked flood modelling to try and understand the complete cycle of rainwater,” he says.

“The India Meteorological Department is more open to working with the weather community than ever before and it is a huge paradigm shift in forecasting, ” says Thomas Prasad V, data scientist

We meet on a hot day in Chennai, under a bright sky dappled with a few cumulus clouds. Calm mornings are indicators of atmospheric instability, a condition where air rises on its own due to positive buoyancy, like a basketball at the bottom of a pool that rises to the top upon release. Sure enough, late in the evening, the trees tilt dizzily and fat drops fall past the branches, running down in dark rivulets and into the gutters. In the last 10 days of June, Nungambakkam, a weather station in east-central Chennai—it was recognised by the World Meteorological Organisation as a long-term station in June 2019 for more than 100 years of meteorological observations—recorded 48 mm of rain and Meenambakkam in the southwest got 80 mm, in keeping with the general trend of the southwest monsoon. Chennai’s rainfall average for July is usually twice as much as its June average, inching up to 148 mm in September and then spiking to 315 mm in October and 374 mm in November with the onset of the retreating monsoon. “The next six months are wet for Chennai. Of course, everything hinges on the northeast monsoon, but this year should be better than the last,” says Ehsan Ahmed, a 41-year-old businessman who started the KEAWeather blog in 2007 as a platform to foster the community of weather enthusiasts in Chennai. Ahmed has a formula for the northeast monsoon. “Two normals, two failures and one excess. In the past 10 years, we have had four below normal monsoons, five normal ones and one that was in excess,” he says. It is not so simple, of course.

THE COMMUNITY at KEAWeather includes a raft of young bloggers who monitor the microclimate of their neighbourhoods, take informed punts on the outlook for the day and analyse larger weather patterns and events to the best of their individual abilities. And all this is served up Chennai style. So we have Ashraf [email protected]—“Better go with our Atchu weather instead of Accuweather”—and Hrishi [email protected] predicting sambavams (occurrences) in the second week of July for KTC (Kancheepuram- Tiruvallur-Chennai). Also lurking in the forums are mystery bloggers who have been around for over a decade— ‘ODM’, suspected to be an agglomeration of bloggers, much like a cluster of clouds: ‘Mian’ who seems to predict weather systems without following any numerical model such as the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasts’ Global-Euro model, the Global Forecast System, and the Icosahedral Nonhydrostatic Model, used widely for imaging and forecasting; and ‘Guest11k’ who has stumped everyone with his/her incredulously tangential predictions about a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal in late October. “There are about 150 active bloggers on KEA but not everyone is an expert. Very few make serious predictions on Facebook and Twitter,” says Jawahar, 23, who remotely tracked the northeast monsoon of 2018—“I mean whatever we got” —through his online weather station in Palavakkam, Chennai, while pursuing a master’s in advanced mechanical engineering in Glasgow, Scotland. Discussions on KEA range from how someone in Tambaram harvested 52,000 litres of water from his 25,000 sq ft factory roof with just 21 mm of rain, harmless scrapping over the copious rains in Mumbai and the Konkan, and prospects for the Cauvery basin.

“It is the first time since the floods of 2015 that people are glued to the weather. I have had 300,000 to 400,000 views from people desperate to know how the two monsoons of the year will pan out,” says Pradeep John, Weather Blogger

For John, it was the “horrible childhood” without TV and entertainment in Marthandam, Kanyakumari, that turned him into a rain-worshipper, and his celebrity in the wake of the 2015 floods, when his Facebook posts reached over 200,000 readers and were picked up by rescue teams, has in turn inspired a generation of young bloggers to take seriously to weather. Sai Krishna R, 16, says rain-watching with peers and mentors has built a sense of community. Besides, it scratches his itch for statistics. “We fail often and we get trolled for bad predictions but it doesn’t matter,” he says. Others shun the limelight and study the weather as a puzzle to be cracked. Forty-two-year-old Ramakrishnan Venkatasubramanian, who works in the IT industry and has been dubbed ‘CEO Ram’ by the community, keeps a low profile online, but understands weather systems like few others do. Over a latte, he painstakingly explains the parameters of forecasting for Chennai: tracking real-time data from the Doppler S Band radar located at the Port Trust, especially useful in cyclone detection; studying readings from the sounding balloon sent up into the sky twice a day from Meenambakkam to record information about wind, temperature and humidity levels across a vertical slice of the atmosphere; looking at wind maps to identify low-pressure areas that could bring rain; comparing weather models with an eye on conditions on the ground; and so on. Even with a good understanding of the countervailing forces of nature, and intuition to boot, this process is entirely fallible. “Take Cyclone Gaja. We all thought it would slow down before making landfall. When cyclonic winds dip southwest, they usually weaken but this one didn’t. Steered by upper-level winds, it was juggling between ridges,” Venkatasubramanian says.

S Shivakumar, a sports marketing executive, developed an attachment to rain after witnessing the deluge of 2005 sweeping through Mumbai. “The same year, I relocated to Chennai on October 21 and the very next day, Nungambakkam witnessed its first big spell of the retreating monsoon. I have since been tracking Chennai weather every year,” he says. He specialises in the underrated southwest monsoon. “We have had two great years in the recent past. The southwest monsoons of 2011 and 2017 were enormous for Chennai. In 2011, Nungambakkam recorded 852.6 mm and we witnessed rare morning rains in August. The year before last, the entire state recorded its highest rainfall during the southwest monsoon in 20 years,” he says. The reservoirs, however, did not fill up due to evaporation and lack of widespread rain over catchment areas. Had the rainwater from the 2017 southwest monsoon percolated down to the water table, Chennai would have been better prepared for the drought of 2018.

The Chennai radar has been down due to mechanical issues since last year and amateur bloggers of Chennai must rely on satellite maps for nowcasting. Meanwhile, there are the quietly brilliant obsessives who analyse cloud microphysics, periodic stratospheric warming, El Niño Modoki, Madden Julian Oscillations (eastward-bound clouds, rainfall, winds and pressure near the equator that recur every 30 to 60 days) and other esoteric atmospheric phenomena to make long-term predictions. K Srikanth, a 44-year-old marketing executive-turned-food entrepreneur who runs the blog Chennaiyil Oru Mazhai Kalam—literally, ‘A Season of Rain in Chennai’—insists he’s not technically inclined. “I am a visual guy. I rely on patterns. To give you an example, I save daily maps zoomed in on crucial areas for months together to identify a phenomenon,” says Srikanth, who runs a small cafe in Anna Nagar and a chain of ice-cream stalls. Every other day, Srikanth is up at the crack of dawn to click through dozens of maps, address comments on his posts and explain weather dynamics. “Always too many twists and layers like a Kamal Haasan screenplay, very complicated monsoon [for Chennai].” In December 2016, even as the IMD was expecting Cyclone Vardah, which was gusting towards the coast at a deadly speed of 140 kmph, to make landfall at Ongole and Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh, Srikanth stuck his neck out and said it was headed straight for Chennai. Overnight, there were 13,000 views on the post and the cyclone was classified as very severe just before it hit. “I have made blunders and apologised for them. But rather than waffle, it’s best to arrive at an informed guess and lay out the dynamics so readers can judge for themselves,” Srikanth says.

“I have made blunders and apologised for them. But rather than waffle, it’s best to arrive at an informed guess and lay out the dynamics so that readers can judge for themselves,” says K Srikanth, weather blogger

He was among the first bloggers to publicly draw attention to the imminent water scarcity in Chennai back in January and to suggest a ‘survival plan’ until the onset of the northeast monsoon in 2019. ‘It is an irony though we are possibly not doing enough to get Chennai’s annual share of 5 TMC from the Krishna Water Supply Project on a regular basis. With just 4 months left in the current water year [June to May] nearly 70 per cent of the annual realization is yet to be received by Tamil Nadu. On the back of a good Southwest Monsoon 2018 in the catchment areas of Krishna Basin we should have made a better case of it when Northeast Monsoon 2019 was showing signs of failure,’ he wrote in a post on February 1st. Southwest monsoon 2018 was not just good for the Krishna basin, it was also a historic year for the Cauvery with the river recording its highest-ever inflow in nearly 50 years. ‘Kabini reached FRL before June end while Harangi followed in a few days time. By July 3rd week all the four dams in Karnataka & Mettur in Tamil Nadu reached Full Reservoir Level. Mettur reached FRL after August 2013. The storage in the Cauvery basin reservoirs in Karnataka as of yesterday is the lowest in nearly a decade. Roughly 20% of the storage at the same time as last year,’ Srikanth wrote in a blog post last week. ‘We have followed a bumper year and if the water stress is so much what happens during successive sub-par monsoon seasons?’

Srikanth’s old laptop groans as he pulls up a question on the blog on the effect of urban expansion on Chennai’s weather patterns. His own theory is that in the recent past, sea breeze, that crucial element interacting with slowed-down low-level Westerlies to produce thunderstorms, has been taking longer to traverse the city from east to west, perhaps due to microclimatic changes from the indiscriminate development along the east coast. The sallow afternoon shows no trace of thickening clouds. So we talk about a time when Tamil rulers read the skies and reacted to them—the Cholas became a maritime power because they learnt to harness the might of the monsoon. In contrast, the state government currently in power admits to having no agency against the forces of nature. It refuses to accept moral responsibility for mismanagement of water resources and blames the crisis squarely on the failure of the northeast monsoon.

An Uber Eats order pops up on Srikanth’s screen and he relays it to his staff to prepare for dispatch. “Working from home leaves me with more time for the weather,” he says. Though early birds like Pradeep John may never want to monetise their forecasting skills, the Chennai weather community, the largest and the most vibrant in the country, is at an inflection point where it could carve for itself a niche in private-sector weather forecasting, Srikanth says. Since January 2018, Thomas Prasad V, a data scientist, has been spearheading a singular effort in this direction. He designed a training module for scientists from the IMD, Indian Space Research Organisation, Skymet and other government and private agencies, bridging the sectarian divide in weather for the first time. Prasad is secretive and does not put out predictions on social media, but as I quickly scroll down his Weather Basics WhatsApp group, where some of the top weather scientists of the country trade notes and barbs, there is effusive praise for his spot-on predictions for Cyclone Fani and his flood forecasting for Kerala, where he helped save thousands of lives. His freshly minted venture, Climate Resilient Observing Systems Promotion Council, is also working on a countrywide lightning awareness campaign. Other bloggers aver that it is because of continued pressure from the likes of Prasad that the IMD has upped its cyclone game by issuing alerts every three hours. “The IMD is more open to working with the weather community than ever before and it is a huge paradigm shift in forecasting,” says Thomas. “Expect some interesting developments in the years to come.”