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Unpredictable weather decimates India’s salt production

India’s salt production, concentrated in Gujarat’s salt pans, is facing a grim future due to erratic weather patterns, putting the nation’s self-sufficiency in salt at risk.

For centuries, the Agariya community in Gujarat’s Kachchh district has relied on the region’s arid climate and vast salt marshes to produce salt, a practice deeply rooted in their cultural heritage. However, the once-predictable weather patterns that facilitated their livelihood have taken an uncertain turn, casting a shadow over the future of salt production in the region.

According to Shamji Kangad, owner of Neelkanth Salt and Supply Private Ltd., cyclones like Tauktae in May 2021 and Biparjoy in June 2023 have disrupted the salt production cycle, sometimes for as long as 30 days, even though the cyclone warnings last only 10 days.

The impact of these disruptions is reflected in the declining salt production levels in Gujarat, which accounts for 80% of India’s salt production. Tamil Nadu’s Thoothukudi, another major salt-producing region, has faced similar challenges, with unseasonal floods in December 2023 washing away 400,000 tons of salt.

The shifting sands of climate change

The salt production season, which traditionally spanned nine months, has now been reduced to a mere six months, leading to a 60-70% decrease in production, according to salt farmers in Kachchh. This alarming decline can be attributed to the changing weather patterns, which have strayed from the ideal conditions required for optimal salt production.

Bhoomi R. Andharia, a senior scientist at the Salt and Marine Water Division of CSMCRI (Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute), explains the intricate relationship between temperature, humidity, and salt production.

‘As temperature rises, there is more evaporation of seawater, resulting in highly saturated air mass over salt works in coastal areas. This increases humidity, which in turn lowers the evaporation of salt’ she said.

The ideal weather conditions include an average temperature range of 20 to 45 degrees Celsius, rainfall not exceeding 600 mm in a total spell of 100 days, relative humidity of 50 to 70%, and wind velocity of 3 to 15 kms per hour, with wind direction from North-East to South-West and North-West to South-East to aid evaporation of brine.

According to data from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), the average annual rainfall in Kachchh has increased by nearly 30% over the past decade, with the region receiving an average of 625 mm of rainfall annually between 2013 and 2022, compared to the long-term average of 480 mm.

This increased precipitation has disrupted the delicate balance required for optimal salt production, leading to a worrying decline in output.

Weathering the storm: a call for action 

Chetan Kamdar, owner of Bhavnagar Salt and Industrial Works Pvt. Ltd., highlights the alarming trend of increased rainfall in the region. ‘In Kachchh, annual rainfall has been above 600 mm as compared to the normal 450 mm since the last four years, with this year being the highest at 730 mm,’ he said.

The aftermath of cyclones further compounds the problem, as salt pans must be emptied and repaired, significantly affecting the solar evaporation process that occurs during the summer months.

According to estimates from the Salt Commissioner’s Office, the damage caused by Cyclone Tauktae in 2021 resulted in a loss of over 2 million tons of salt production in Gujarat, amounting to financial losses of approximately Rs. 800 crore (USD 100 million).

As India grapples with the challenges posed by climate change, the declining salt production in Kachchh serves as a stark reminder of the urgency to address the global threat.

With the nation’s self-sufficiency in salt at stake, it is imperative for stakeholders, policymakers, and the scientific community to develop sustainable solutions to mitigate the impact of unpredictable weather patterns on this vital industry.

One potential solution lies in the adoption of advanced techniques for salt production, such as the use of vacuum evaporation systems or membrane-based desalination processes. These technologies, while more capital-intensive, can potentially reduce the reliance on solar evaporation and provide a more controlled environment for salt production, mitigating the impact of adverse weather conditions.

Additionally, efforts must be made to strengthen the resilience of salt farming communities through targeted adaptation measures, such as the development of alternative livelihood options, improved infrastructure, and access to climate-resilient technologies.

By empowering these communities and providing them with the necessary resources, they can better withstand the challenges posed.

This blight joins an endless rap sheet attributed to climate change, and we must act to prevent the cultural heritage of salt farming from evaporating, itself.