Forecast may weigh drought chances too

Forecast may weigh drought chances too

New Delhi: In a bid to usher in greater transparency, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) plans to restructure its monsoon forecast and will include warnings of a drought, if so required, at the time of the first announcement in April.

The change, expected to be effected from this year, two persons confirmed separately, is signficant because of the failure of the monsoon last year and the inability of IMD to put out a timely warning. Any setback this year could have severe implications for the agriculture sector in particular and the economy in general, especially at a time when food price inflation is in double digits. An early warning may be just what the government needs for an early policy response.

To be sure, IMD had put out a drought prospect in its 2003 forecast, but discontinued it thereafter.

Ajit Tyagi, director of IMD, declined comment on the subject, but did clarify that policymakers had been briefed on last year’s drought “well in advance", and that this had helped them manage the drought effectively.

Scientists say the move to incorporate drought estimates in the forecast is a welcome step and will better prepare the public in case of a monsoon failure.

“IMD’s current models are tuned to be able to give a drought probability. It has always been so. However, its current reliance on a number—95%, 93% (...of the normal)—isn’t correct. Giving drought probabilities is fairer to the people and also helps IMD’s image as a forecasting agency," said Madhavan Rajeevan, formerly with IMD and a climate scientist with the Indian Space Research Organisation.

Rajeevan added that IMD stopped this practice after trying it in 2003 “after officers within IMD itself as well as from other ministries complained that the information was unwieldy and too complicated".

Last year, the weather agency’s forecast in April said India’s monsoon would be “near normal", or 93% of a 50-year average or long period average. It didn’t warn of an impending drought until June end.

India faced its worst drought in 32 years in 2009, with rainfall that was nearly 23% short of a 50-year average considered normal, and only one-third of its 39 meteorological divisions registering normal rainfall. The country’s water reservoirs were full only 60% of their capacity, nearly 10% less than the decadal average.

N.R. Bhanumurthi of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy said, “Any information on the chances of a drought are helpful. However, more than policymakers, it helps farmers better plan for the crops they must grow and their water requirements..."

Bhanumurthi added that giving out the probability of a drought was much more useful information than mere “below normal" or “above normal" predictions.

India gets over three-fourths of its annual rainfall during the monsoon months spanning June till September. This period is the main source of water for agriculture, which accounts for around 17% of the country’s gross domestic product. 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 monsoon is considered to be crucial for the economy. In 2007 and 2008, the decline in agricultural production was largely offset by surplus food stocks. With the area of cultivated farmland dipping 20% over 2008 levels—on account of the drought—another bad monsoon could further stoke inflationary expectations. Food price inflation was 17.8% for the week ended 27 February.

IMD officials are also discussing a proposal to publicize monsoon forecasts prepared by other institutes, including the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and the Indian Institute of Science. Traditionally, these institutes only discuss their monsoon projections with top IMD officials, and disclose their numbers in the occasional research paper—much after the monsoon.

“That could be significant because if other institutes consistently publicize their results over time, people can judge for themselves if the IMD is more or less reliable than other organizations," said K. Krishnakumar, a climate science researcher at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune