WSJ India, 3 Mar 2014
The threat from El Nino–a weather phenomenon usually associated with below-average rainfall in India– is hanging over the all-important monsoon this year.
El Nino is the abnormal warming of the Pacific Ocean that, because of the way these things work, causes a shift of moist winds away from their more typical patterns. It generally results in less rain for India’s June-to-September monsoon season. “There is a good chance (for El Nino this year),” said Jatin Singh, chief executive of New Delhi-based private weather forecaster Skymet Weather services.
Monsoon rains are critical to India’s economy. Some 70% of the nation’s farmland relies on rain, as opposed to irrigation. And more than half the nation’s workforce is employed in the farm sector.
In early February, the statistics ministry forecast that the economy will grow at 4.9%, slightly higher than last year’s 4.5% on the back of good monsoon rains. This comes at a time when the country’s manufacturing industry is struggling due to a slowdown in consumer spending.
L.S. Rathore, the head of state-run India Meteorological Department, said El Nino is likely to develop in the second half of the monsoon season, but its effect isn’t likely to be severe. The weather department will come out with its official forecast in April, which will be an evaluation of all the factors affecting the monsoon, he said.
In late February, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology also predicted warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean in the coming months.
El Nino last affected India’s monsoon in 2009, reducing the output of summer sown crops such as rice and sugar cane and pushing up food prices. The total amount of rainfall during that year was 23% below normal. The ’09 drought in India due to El Nino pushed global sugar prices to a record high; India is the second largest producer of sugar.
El Nino occurs in every three to five years and can last up to 18 months. Last year, the rainfall in India was 6% above average.
The government isn’t taking any chances in this election year. Last week, Farm Minister Sharad Pawar said in a statement that contingency plans include steps such as stocking up on so-called short-duration varieties of crops — which, in the case of a monsoon failure, can be grown in less time than the usual crops– and alerting agriculture research institutes and the government officials to help the farmers to recoup any regency losses caused by diminished rainfall by providing seeds and fertilizer.