In the last few weeks, the Marathwada region of Maharashtra, one of the worst drought affected in the country, has received fair amount of precipitation. In fact, it has rained more than twice the normal average rainfall for the region in the month of March.
The rest of the country, too, has got more than the normal quota of rainfall this month. While these are extremely welcome rains, what is extremely crucial for agriculture and rural India, however, is a good rainfall during the main southwest monsoon season from June to September.
For the last two years, India has had deficient monsoon rainfall, resulting in drought in large swathes of the country. This year, even winter rains, triggered by the north-east monsoon, were absent. Virtually every month after June has seen deficient rainfall. There are indications now, though, that this spell of bad monsoon might just end this year.
The first forecast of the Indian Meteorological Department is still three weeks away, but two key indicators are showing signs of turning favourable in the next few days. The most important is the El Nino phenomenon which is known to suppress rainfall over the Indian region. El Nino — a reference to the unusual rise of sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Peru and Ecuador in South America — has been behind some of the worst droughts in recent decades, and was also blamed for the low rainfall last year.
The current spell of El Nino has been one of the longest and strongest of all time. But latest global climate models are showing that this has finally begun to weaken and is likely to enter “neutral” phase by May. What is more, there is a 50 per cent chance of a La Nina, the opposite of El Nino, developing by August. La Nina, the unusual cooling of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, is known to enhance rainfall activity during monsoon.
“A strong El Nino is present and is weakening. Positive equatorial sea surface temperature anomalies continue across most of the Pacific Ocean. A transition to ENSO (El Nino southern oscillation) neutral is likely during late northern hemisphere spring or early summer 2016, with close to a 50 per cent chance for La Nina conditions to develop by the fall,” a bulletin issued by the Climate Prediction Centre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association of the United States said on Monday.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s advisory released the next day, too, held that that the equatorial Pacific has been “coolest” since January 2015.
“International climate models suggest El Nino will continue to weaken during the southern autumn, returning to neutral levels by mid-2016,” it said. Another indicator, the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), is also neutral right now.
The IOD is a phenomenon similar to El Nino and La Nina, though much closer home in the Indian Ocean. A positive IOD often neutralises the impact of El Nino and is known to induce rainfall over the Indian region. A weakening El Nino and neutral IOD does not necessarily mean good monsoon rainfall. The IMD tracks five indicators to make its first forecast and another three for its second forecast that usually comes in the first week of June. These indicators have complex relationships with the monsoon rainfall. Additionally, the El Nino has a delayed impact. Rainfall in June, the first of the four-month monsoon season, might still be adversely affected by the El Nino if it continues till May.”Although the 2015-16 El Nino is weakening, it will continue to influence climate during the southern hemisphere autumn,” the Australian bureau said. The impact of two successive drought years has not been as debilitating for agriculture as would have been expected a few years ago, thanks to advance warning and timely planning. But the lack of rains have certainly taken a toll of water availability for irrigation, power generation and even drinking purposes. Most of the reservoirs in the country are running way below their normal storage levels at this time of the year. In fact, some of them, including in Marathwada, have completely dried up. The 16 big and small reservoirs in the region together had only five per cent of their normal storage at the start of this week.
As on March 23, the 91 major reservoirs monitored by the Central Water Commission together had water that was only 26 per cent of their full capacity.
The amount of water stored in these reservoirs was less than 70 per cent of what was stored at the same time last year, which itself was quite low. While agriculture’s prospects in 2016-17 will depend largely on the monsoon’s performance, right now meeting basic drinking water requirements till June is the biggest concern.