Dryness a concern in India

by Drew Lerner
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India’s monsoonal rainfall was predicted to be lighter than usual this year, but June rainfall has been far lighter than many had anticipated and it has created and rising tide of international concern since all of the nation’s crops are dependent on the monsoon for normal production.

India’s monsoon begins in southern parts of the nation June 1 and advances northward reaching some of the key soybean and groundnut producing areas by mid-June, and then advancing into far northern parts of the nation by July 15. The monsoon then withdraws across the nation from north to south beginning in the second week of September and concluding in early October. During those four months the frequent rains are responsible for supporting the entire summer crop growing season.

Failing rainfall in India during the summer can result in widespread production cuts for sugarcane, coffee, citrus, cotton, corn, sorghum, rice, soybeans and groundnuts. There is quite a large pulse crop produced in the nation during the summer and the rains that fall over the four-month period are not only key in developing summer crops, but they also recharge water supply to support winter crops that are largely irrigated. India’s economy is heavily weighted on agriculture and it is imperative that its annual rains are sufficient to produce relatively normal crops or they run the risk of an economic decline, as well as inflation issues because of inadequate food supply.

In recent years, India has developed a sophisticated food storage program designed to protect the nation from possible agricultural calamities brought on by periodic monsoon failures or at least by seriously reduced rainfall. It is well understood that many of the most serious droughts in India have occurred while El Niño events were evolving or under way. El Niño events change rainfall throughout southern Asia reducing sugarcane, rice, rubber tea, coarse grain and oilseed production (among other crops) just like that in India. Droughts in India are serious enough on their own, but if they occur simultaneously with drought in Indonesia, Malaysia and portions of mainland Southeast Asia, the impact can become crippling for a larger part of southern Asia and possible impact the remainder of the world’s food stocks.

India’s monsoon has only failed a few times in recorded history, but in each event the impact was devastating. The food storage programs in place have helped tremendously to buffer a poor summer rainfall year and lower production. But the program would be pushed to an extreme if the monsoon flat out failed to perform at all.

Usually, the worst droughts in India occur during an El Niño event while at the same time the water temperature in the western Indian Ocean was cooler than usual. The reduced ocean temperatures reduce the amount of water vapor that reaches into the air and then reduces rainfall as that reduced water vapor moves over India by the southwest monsoonal winds.

The latest sea surface temperature data has suggested the water in the western Indian Ocean is warm and that should help reduce fear of the worst possible dryness scenario for the nation. However, with that said the ocean temperatures are cooling over the region and the situation will need to be closely monitored for a possible bigger concern about late season rainfall. For now, such an event is only speculation.

Rainfall in India during the first three weeks of June was well below average with most of the northwest and west-central parts of the nation reporting less than 25% of normal rainfall. Rain totals from southern Maharashtra to eastern Uttar Pradesh was 25%-75% of normal with many areas less than half of normal rain. The only wetter than usual areas were noted in parts of West Bengal and portions of Bangladesh and in a few interior southern portions of India.

The soil moisture profile in India at the end of the third week of June was still suggesting short to very short topsoil moisture in most of northern, interior western and interior southern parts of the nation. Each of these areas will need significant rain in late June and July to bolster soil moisture for planting. The region was still too hot and dry for planting at the time of this writing and most computer forecast models were suggesting the last week to 10 days of June will probably not produce much better rainfall in some areas. That sets the stage for a more serious level of concern, but June is just the first month of the monsoon season.

July and August rainfall are expected to be much improved in India. Normal rainfall may occur across the heart of the nation from some important southwestern sugarcane and western grain, oilseed and cotton areas into Uttar Pradesh. The swath of improved rainfall should reach key soybean, sorghum, groundnut and cotton areas. The situation needs to be closely monitored because rainfall has been lighter than expected in June and it may be that way in July, as well. Forecasters expect improvement, but not necessarily greater than usual rainfall for very many areas.

In the meantime, the developing El Niño phenomenon has not yet had a huge impact on weather in the remainder of southern Asia. Rainfall has been in decline across western Indonesia and peninsular Malaysia, but the region is not critically dry because of previous abundant rain in May and early June. Portions of the Philippines are also dealing with less than usual rainfall, but like India the situation has not yet become a serious problem.

Mainland areas of Southeast Asia have also reported below average rainfall at times in recent weeks. However, the situation has improved recently with a boost in rainfall from Myanmar into Thailand while Vietnam and Cambodia have continued to report below average amounts of rain.

China shows some improvement

China’s weather is also being closely monitored since it, too, has a tendency to trend a little drier than usual in a developing El Niño environment. China’s weather has recently improved with relief from dryness recently evolving across some of the winter wheat production areas of the north. It is harvest season in China’s wheat country and the recent drier biased weather was welcome for crop maturation and harvesting. The weather has recently shifted so that the previously dry North China Plain has begun to trend a little wetter while the east-central parts of China have trended drier. No matter how one looks at the situation in China, it must be interpreted as a mostly favorable environment for this year’s grain, oilseed and cotton crops. The same cannot be said for some of China’s sugarcane and citrus production areas.

Frequent bouts of excessive rain have occurred recently in southern China, causing some flooding and raising concern over the health and general condition of sugarcane, rice and other crops produced near and south of the Yangtze River Valley.

Another symptom of El Niño noted recently has been the persistent rainy weather in southern Brazil. Frequent bouts of excessive rain have already impacted second season corn production areas from Paraguay and southwestern Mato Grosso do Sul into Parana and Santa Catarina, Brazil. The region has been wet enough to delay wheat planting in Parana and Rio Grande do Sul.

El Niño has not evolved well enough to change world weather patterns, but you might not be able to convince some people of that. Weather in North America’s key crop areas is plenty moist and, so far, there have been few bouts of hot, dry weather which is also typical of El Niño events.

Drew Lerner is a senior agricultural meteorologist with World Weather, Inc. He may be reached at worldweather@bizkc.rr.com. World Weather, Inc. forecasts and comments pertaining to present, past and future weather conditions included in this report constitute the corporation’s judgment as of the date of this report and are subject to change without notice.