India’s weather patterns continue to be abnormal with the Indian Meteorological Department recording the warmest September, October, November and December since records began in 1901. This unusual warmth occurred in tandem with India experiencing the heaviest rainfall seen in Southeast India in decades at the beginning of December as well as with significantly below-average rainfall at the end of December and the beginning of January. These weather variations are exacerbating already challenging conditions due to the lowest summer monsoon rainfall in six years. (See the India FSP’s recent articles on the effects of El Niño on the summer monsoon and on the rabi season).
The main cause of the warmer winter, poor summer monsoon and overall erratic weather patterns has been ascribed to one of the strongest El Niño events on record. El Niño is a global weather pattern that occurs every three to seven years as a result of prolonged ocean warming in the Eastern Pacific (the last event occurred in 2009-2010). El Niño events last on average between 9 and 24 months and change global weather patterns; El Niño years are generally, but not always, associated with a rainfall deficit and warmer than normal summers and winters in India. The warming of the Eastern Pacific Ocean affects monsoon formation and trade winds, leading to less rainfall on the Indian sub-continent. Furthermore El Niño events are often followed by La Niña events, which generally have the opposite but similarly harmful effects.
The current El Niño cycle is expected to continue impacting Indian and global weather patterns into next year and is already having negative effects on India’s farmers and the agricultural sector as a whole. The Deputy Director General for the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), has stated that the warm winter and lack of winter rains will affect wheat output and the entire winter crop. According to The Economic Times, wheat planting is already 27 percent lower than last year and production is likely to fall below 90 million tonnes (MT) for the second year in a row. With the winter in India likely to be warmer and shorter due to a combination of climate change and El Niño effects, both wheat quality and quantity could be negatively impacted.
More than half of the Indian population is directly involved in the agricultural sector and this includes many of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country. As a result, a poor monsoon is likely to significantly increase the incidence of poverty and undernutrition as both food availability and farmers’ purchasing power decrease.
In response, farmers and farming groups are calling on the government to increase its financial support and investments in the agricultural sector, particularly for irrigation schemes, in order to improve farmers’ resilience to these climate shocks. The Indian Finance Minister, who will present India’s 2016/2017 budget at the end of February, has stated that the national government will spend 500 billion rupees ($7.5 billion) on irrigation projects over the next five years. He has also indicated that more funds will be made available for improving weather forecasting and state-funded crop insurance schemes.
A poor harvest is likely to lead to increased food price inflation; for instance, the price of onions fluctuates greatly due to rainfall. Such price fluctuations constrain the variety and diversity of food available to consumers. It remains to be seen how poor harvests will drive food price inflation across a range of important crops such as pulses and wheat.
By Bas Paris, IFPRI