It was in 2009 when El Nino last hit India, followed by 21 per cent less rainfall than received normally and a severe drought. However, if the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has got it right, the country is faced with a 60 per cent prospect of a revisit of the phenomenon this year. Also predicted is below normal monsoon that has a huge bearing on the agriculture sector in a country where more than 50 per cent of the population depends on it for its sustenance. The IMD claims have been substantiated by a similar forecast from Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
‘El Nino’ means “The Christ Child” in Spanish. It was originally used by fishermen to refer to the warm currents in the Pacific Ocean near the coasts of Peru and Ecuador that appeared periodically roundabout Christmas time. In today’s global context of weather, El Nino refers to the warm currents that travel from the western Pacific and Indian Ocean to the eastern Pacific Ocean. It causes extensive drought in the western Pacific and India, and brings rainfall to the normally dry eastern Pacific. Smaller the temperature difference between the eastern and western Pacific, the more likelihood is of a strong El Nino. Another factor which affects El Nino is the volume of warm water across equatorial Pacific Ocean. Greater the volume, the stronger is the El Nino phenomenon. El Nino happens at irregular intervals of two to seven years and lasts for a period between nine months and two years. The seven to nine months’ duration is termed as El Nino condition and if it lasts longer than that, it is called an episode. “Three possible scenarios of El Nino, La Nina or neutral monsoon exist every year; the possibility of neutral monsoon has decreased in the last couple of months and the chance of El Nino has increased from 35 to 45 per cent. To declare whether a year is an El Nino year or not, Oceanic Nino Index (ONI) is taken for three successive months over the Pacific Ocean. The condition for El Nino exists if the ONI is 0.5 and above. Once figures above 0.5 are obtained, El Nino is declared,” says G.P. Sharma of Skymet Weather Services. According to the forecast, the north-west region of the country will be the worst affected which includes the states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. The western region which includes the states like Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa will also not get spared. However, peninsular India may not be affected that much.
The recent droughts of 2002 and 2009 and 10 of the last 14 droughts since 1951 are due to the El Nino effect. Agriculture, which contributes about 14 per cent to the Indian economy, is obviously the most affected sector. The Kharif crop season is largely dependent on rainfall. Seventy per cent of India’s farmland relies on rain water.
The economic ramifications of El Nino could not have been more significant as the country attempts to stage a recovery after witnessing growth slowing down to between five and six per cent. High inflation in the scenario of less production seems a realistic possibility and may contribute to lowering of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The inflation, which had seen a downward trend in the last few months, may again spiral out of control. The growth which is predicted at 5.4 per cent for fiscal year 2015 will decrease and the eight per cent CPI (Consumer Price Index) inflation forecast by the Reserve Bank of India for January 2015 will also be a distant target as agricultural commodities have around 50 per cent weightage in retail inflation. Higher food inflation will result in reduced purchasing power. Reduction in the rice yield is very much possible if the present weather condition persists. The last El Nino in 2009 was also accompanied by sharp global rise in the prices of sugar; India is the world’s second largest sugar producer. The production of oilseeds will be affected as well. Palm oil prices will shoot up in India due to the adverse effect of less rain on palm oil producing countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. India is the largest importer of palm oil in the world while Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s two largest palm oil producers. Import of coffee is also going to become costlier.
The whole country is in the election mode. This election is being largely fought on the issues of development models and secular politics. But once the election gets over on May 16, the biggest challenge before the incoming government will be to find a way to tackle the challenges facing the agricultural sector if El Nino strikes as predicted. The forecast by IMD of less seasonal monsoon (between June and September) is coinciding with the beginning of the new tenure of the national government. Dealing with it will be the first task of any government coming to power. The ruling government has promised food security to its citizens recently which implies that the task for government will now become even more challenging than it was in 2009.
The CWC (Central Water Commission) has recently stated that the total storage in 85 major reservoirs of the country is at a mere 40 per cent of the total capacity. With major water reservoirs reporting modest storage, CWC asked the states to be judicious in utilising water in the possible event of El Nino.
While El Nino does affect the weather of a country, it is not necessarily followed by a drought. An example in this regard is the year, 1997-98, which saw the largest amount of warm water cross the Pacific. In that year, India registered above-average rainfall. However, Sharma of Skymet Weather Services calls it an exception. “Exceptions invariably exist and generally El Nino is accompanied by below normal rainfall,” he insists. The same was true for 2006, a weak El Nino year. In 2012 too, with a mild El Nino and 8 per cent below-average rainfall, the country had escaped drought.
In terms of availability of food, the country is in a better position to face an event like an El Nino condition and drought. But, if the conditions persist for more time and turn into El Nino episodes, the available food stock may disappear. The availability of less water consuming and high-yield variety of agricultural seeds too can help in this scenario. However, the challenge that remains is of providing those seeds on a very large scale across the length and breadth of the country.
Stock markets in India are at an all-time high and should be able to deal with the prospects of reduced rain this year. The lessened dependence of the economy on agriculture is also reflected in the upbeat mood of the market despite the IMD forecast on April 24. IMD will issue another forecast report in the month of June. If El Nino shifts to the fall of monsoon season, there will be less damage to agriculture and the country may well escape the full impact of El Nino. However, grain sizes will become much smaller due to less availability of water.
As and when the updated forecast on the El Nino by IMD, along with a separate forecast for rainfall for the months of July and August, will be released in June, the summer dust over the picture will get clear. It is an irony that even in this age of technological sophistication, the lives of millions and billions across the world actually hinges on the vagaries of nature.