We Must Prepare For The Likely El Nino-Induced Drought

By Parul Jain June 21, 2023

El-Nino is anticipated to return by the middle of 2023, thus it is essential to take a proactive approach with both short-term and long-term remedies

We Must Prepare For The Likely El Nino-Induced Drought
The last significant El-Nino year in India was 2009-10 when drought was declared as rainfall was less than 23% of the average rainfall. DepositPhotos

After the La-Nina ‘Triple Dip’ in the Pacific Ocean, El-Nino is all set to make a return by mid of 2023. IMD has predicted a below-monthly rainfall over most parts of India. Despite El-Nino resurgence, a normal monsoon has been predicted. It has retained the forecasts made in April 2023 wherein the June-September rainfall over India is likely to be 96% of the Long Period Average, i.e., 1970-2020 of 87cm. As per WMO, the probability of El Nino during May-July 2023 is 60%. Further, NOAA predicts a large spread of the predicted El Nino.

Two counter-forces are predicted as well. One, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) is likely to develop over the Indian Ocean during the same period. Generally, a positive IOD event is seen to mute El Nino’s impact, as is evidenced by the years 1997-98, 2006-07 and 2015-16. Two, the northern hemisphere snow cover areas during February and March 2023 were observed to be below normal and this generally has an inverse relationship with the subsequent summer monsoon rainfall.

However, the last major El Nino phenomenon was witnessed in 2015-16 and having another 'jumbo' event within 7 years is a cause of concern. It may adversely impact the production of Kharif crops. Studies found that delayed/deficit monsoons reduce yields. The total foodgrain production loss crossed 5% in all the standalone El Nino years of 1991-92, 1995-96, 2002-03 and 2009-10. In a monsoon-dependent country like ours which has only 40% of land under irrigation, a deficit monsoon has a direct bearing on the welfare of farmers, consumers and food security on the whole.

The last significant El-Nino year in India was 2009-10 when drought was declared as rainfall was less than 23% of the average rainfall. Studies have found that a severe drought decreases household incomes by 25-60% and increases poverty incidence by 12-33% in India. Further, as per CWC, the water levels in India’s 146 key reservoirs have dipped 35% year-on-year. Of late however, the shrinkage in loss in foodgrain output in drought years to 5% in 2015-16 from 17% in 2002-03 shows increased resilience of foodgrain production to El Nino.

While the evidence below suggests a weak link between inflation and the occurrence of el-nino-induced foodgrain production, it’s crucial to consider the current context of the recent global supply chain disruptions and elevated global good price levels. While there has been a moderation in prices, the occurrence of El Nino may reverse the relief.

Finally, the standalone El Nino years of 2009-10 and 2015-16 led to narrowing of the agri-trade balance, the impact of which reverberated for the next 2-3 years. 

The years where El Nino was not accompanied by IOD, were declared drought years. Therefore, it is better to have a proactive approach with solutions spanning from short-term to long-term both.

In the short term, the safety net for farmers needs to be strengthened. Improving crop insurance coverage under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, strengthening storage facilities, and providing extension services to warn farmers and encourage them to look towards non-farm activities, are some measures. Research suggests that the MGNREGA scheme motivated the beneficiaries to adopt risk management practices in agriculture, and their participation helped reduce their exposure to downside risks.

In the long-term, structural measures are required. First, crop diversification is being accepted as an effective and low-cost ex-ante adaptation measure to weather and climatic shocks. India has made significant progress through the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), which covers over 110 million hectares of agricultural land and has promoted a wide range of crops. The recent endorsement of the MAHARISHI Initiative at the G20 MACS to promote research in millets and ancient grains is a welcome step.  

Second, switch towards smart irrigation. Israel is a leader in smart irrigation, and by adopting drip irrigation, it has reduced its agricultural water consumption by 10% and increased water use efficiency by 95% over the past decade, despite a 12% increase in agricultural production. Australia has used smart irrigation technologies like soil moisture sensors to save over 240 billion litres of water annually. Similarly, India has made significant strides with the flagship PM Krishi Sinchayi Yojana to improve farmers’ access to effective and efficient irrigation facilities.

Third, Climate-smart technologies like drones enable the efficient dispersal of inputs to crops and develop resilience. Colombia has developed 200+ disease-resistant palm oil varieties, which have increased yields by 30%. According to the World Bank, the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices in Vietnam led to an increase of 20% in crop yields. In India, DAFW and ICAR have been focusing on agro-ecological planning and the introduction of climate-resilient and high-yielding varieties of various crops. Consequently, the productivity of major crops has increased by 10-15% (MoAFW).

Finally, management in the event of drought is of the utmost importance. The government's administrative machinery at all levels should be adequately trained in time.

India is certainly better placed to deal with the vagaries of El Nino, as seen by its resilience to weather shocks, but it is always advisable to be prepared rather than sorry.

(The author is Assistant Director in Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare (MoAFW), GoI)