New Delhi: A looming meteorological threat may hit India’s just-recovering economy. Weather scientists warn that there’s a greater than 50% chance this year of El Nino, a weather phenomenon characterized by a warming of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean waters.
Typically there’s a 33% chance every year for El Nino, but international weather organizations say rapidly changing weather conditions in the last three months have increased chances of the weather anomaly coming to pass this year.
The warming waters, in ways still not completely understood, alter wind patterns and blow off rain-bearing clouds, which water India during the monsoon months starting June.
The figures indicate the percentage deviation of rainfall, from its weekly normal for each meteorological subdivision in the country. Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint
This means less rains and a blow to India’s rural economy, which is substantially dependent on rain-fed agriculture.
The India Meteorological Department (IMD), which forecasts the progress of the Indian monsoon, says that a clear picture will emerge only around mid-June, but admits that it is keeping a close eye on things.
“It’s not a situation for alarm, but we are certainly worried,” says D.S. Pai, director (forecasting), IMD, Pune. “If El Nino becomes strong between July and September, it could impact the rains, but there have been several El Nino years with normal, even excess rainfall.”
Though international weather organizations such as the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology have released warnings of an impending El Nino, IMD says it’s waiting for word from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).
“WMO bases its decision on reports from all these agencies. We should get word from them by 15 June and that will significantly influence our monsoon predictions,” says Pai. On 18 April, IMD had said the country’s average annual monsoon is likely to be near normal this year, though less than the 89cm recorded last year. Rainfall between 85.4-92.5cm (or 96-104% of the average rainfall India has received every year for the past 50 years) is classified as “near normal”.
The annual June-September monsoon generates nearly 80% of the annual rainfall over the country and is vital for the economy, being the main source of water for agriculture, which accounts for around 17% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP). Other than the 60% of the country’s workforce that depends on agriculture, the rains are also important for traders dealing in food and cash crops.
The current year’s monsoons are considered to be crucial for the economy as buoyant rural consumption has been a key driver of growth amid an economic downturn.
Many economists have significantly increased their growth forecasts for the current fiscal owing to the formation of a stable government at the Centre and a better than expected economic performance in the fourth quarter of 2008-09.
Citigroup India economist Rohini Malkani, who has revised her GDP estimate for 2009-10 to 6.8% from 5.5% earlier, however, wrote in a recent report about the possible economic impact of El Nino.
“Our headline GDP growth estimate of 6.8% is based on an agriculture growth of 3%. If the monsoons do disappoint, flat agriculture growth would shave off around 50 basis points from the headline numbers.” However, she maintained that at present she is not revising her overall growth forecast. The alert on the weather phenomenon is a “matter of worry” said Abhijit Sen, a member in charge of agriculture at the Planning Commission, India’s apex policy planning organization. He adds that the “Met department” should look at the threat closely.
Later this month, IMD will update its forecast and provide a disaggregated picture of the monsoon’s performance over four broad geographical zones in India: north-west, northeast, south and central India.
El Nino, which meteorologists say typically emerges two to four times a decade, has never really been on IMD’s radar. Indian scientists don’t even have a weather model to predict El Nino and choose instead to rely on predictions by the Japan Meteorological Agency and WMO for this.
However, two unexpected droughts in 2002 and 2004—both El Nino years— have forced IMD to abandon its old weather models and start taking El Nino seriously.
“There’s certainly a strong correlation...greater than 60% of El Nino years and droughts in India,” said Madhavan Rajeevan, a weather scientist with the Indian Space Research Organisation and formerly of IMD. “But India isn’t as dependent on El Nino...as South America or even Australia, where El Nino almost certainly reduces fish catches and triggers bush fires, apart from the reduction in rainfall.”