Agriculture is vital for India’s economy as it provides for our basic needs and is the biggest employer in India. With agriculture relying on natural resources like soil, water, air, and sunlight, even minor changes in weather can impact farmers’ livelihoods and that of the entire nation. Let’s examine if El Niño, a weather phenomenon that occurs every 4-7 years, can pose a concern for Indian agriculture and food grain availability this year.

Predictions for 2023

The World Meteorological Department predicted a 90 per cent possibility of La Niña occurring from January to March in 2023. The prediction came true when India witnessed a record-breaking amount of untimely rains in March. Thereafter, Monsoon Mission Coupled Forecast System predicted a 50-50 possibility that El Niño might occur from July to September, coinciding with the monsoon season in India.

Also read: ‘Developing’ El Nino may hit India’s maize, soya and rice output, says FAO

Expected Impact

The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) has reassured that even if El Niño does occur, it may not necessarily cause significant harm to agriculture. The IMD predicts that rainfall might remain at 94-96 per cent of the long-period average with an error margin of +/- 5 per cent. “Most likely, it will be a mild to moderate intensity El Niño stated,” the Institute of Climate Change Studies.

It is also important to note that Not all El Niño(s) result in a loss of monsoon. For example, 1997 witnessed the most powerful El Niño thus far, but it didn’t affect the monsoon.

Furthermore, experts at the Ministry of Earth Sciences believe that although El Niño conditions are imminent, there are factors that may blunt its impact. Monsoon starts in June and ends in September, with El Niño likely to take root from late August to September (as per IMD), more than 50 per cent of rains would remain unaffected. Thanks to the many advisories from Government, farmers too are aware El Nino is foreshadowed, they are likely to resort to early sowing, which would allow a larger portion of crop yields to mature under regular weather conditions. This means less than usual Kharif crops will rely heavily on monsoon rains for irrigation, helping the Indian economy.

In addition, a ‘positive’ phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) with warmer Arabian Sea temperatures is also forecast in the same months, assuring us of an increase in rainfall.

Lastly, IMD has also highlighted that decreased snow cover in Eurasia in February and March could potentially offset the impact of El Niño on the monsoon. Therefore, the thought that El Niño will result in a significant deficiency in rainfall is misplaced.

current scenario

India’s foodgrain reserves, comprising rice, wheat, and coarse grains, can be a savior in mitigating the potential impact of ‘El Niño’ on food availability. As per the latest data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, there are approximately 159 lakh tonnes of wheat and 104 lakh tonnes of rice in stock surpassing the buffer norms requirement of 138 lakh tonnes and 76 lakh tonnes, respectively. These ample reserves ensure a stable supply of food grains and can effectively minimize the risk of food shortages during potential agricultural challenges posed by ‘El Niño’.

To be prepared for what might follow this year, even if the possibility is low- the IMD is set to offer agro-meteorological advisory services and forecasts for over 700 districts across India, taking into account various rainfall scenarios. These forecasts will be disseminated through Krishi Vigyan Kendras, to provide guidance to farmers and stakeholders.

Also read: Sugar prices surge to 11-year high amidst supply concerns and El Nino worries

What can we do

To minimize crop losses in the face of climate challenges like El Nino, implementing effective water management techniques, such as soil moisture conservation and crop diversification, can be crucial for farmers. Since it is expected that rain would be concentrated in a few days, harvesting the water would be the best course. Techniques, such as contour bunds, gully plugs and nala bunds, are age-old systems used effectively for generations. Additionally, it would be prudent to plant drought-resistant varieties of crops, such as millets, sorghum, cowpea, green gram, etc.

Urban populations can contribute by adopting measures to reduce electricity and water consumption, practicing carpooling, and using public transport to reduce pollution and mitigate the impact of climate change.

While El Niño may or may not cause temporary disruptions to agriculture, it is essential to remember that it is a natural climate pattern and not directly linked to climate change. Instead of focusing solely on isolated weather events like El Niño, we need to address the larger issue of climate change that poses a threat to our planet. We must take proactive steps in our daily lives to safeguard the environment, rather than relying on short-term measures that may only last during the duration of El Niño. The recent banning of wheat export due to extreme losses caused by climate change and the expectation of above-average heatwaves spreading across the country serve as a stark reminder of the urgent need to combat this global crisis. By prioritizing long-term solutions and taking action to combat climate change, we can create a sustainable future for agriculture in India and beyond, ensuring food security for generations to come, rather than being overly concerned about temporary weather phenomena like El Niño.

The author is founder-director, Safex Chemicals Ltd.

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