It’s been almost five years, since this little boy, made his last visit bringing unfathomable miseries and hardship to the people of Asia. Whenever he decides to visit, he always brings along with him, disasters starting from record floods to crippling droughts, wildfires and wild swings in weather patterns. The worst part of it is that the visit actually takes place somewhere far away, in eastern and central pacific, but the devastating effects are felt in Asia and cost Billions of Dollars to Asian Economies.
The Little boy is none other than El Nino (means little boy in Spanish), which warms the surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific. This warming up of ocean can be first observed around December in Peruvian waters of South America. This phenomenon occurs cyclically, after every three to seven years. The phenomenon is quite insignificant but the after effects are quite devastating for the humans. Usually it leads to more rainfall in South America and substantial drop in the fish catch. El Nino has a dramatic effect on the trade winds across Pacific, blowing to the west. This results into triggering drought in Southeast Asia , Australia and parts of South Africa. It also reduces Monsoon rainfall in India, which impacts crops and livelihood of people. It generates cyclones in the central Pacific and stormy weather in southern and western US. The number of hurricanes in the Atlantic, however tend to go down. In Australia, El-Nino can cause cut in wheat crop output, reduces water supplies by cutting river flows, shrink city reservoirs and dry out forests, which can trigger bush fires. As against this it increases rain in North America , improving crop prospects. Major El-Nino's have happened in 1982-83, 1997-98 and 2002-03. The severe El Nino in 1998 killed more than 2,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage to crops, infrastructure and mines in Australia and other parts of Asia.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology says that an El Niño weather pattern may occur in the coming months, parching Australia and parts of Asia while bringing rains to South America. International climate models surveyed by this bureau, show that Pacific Ocean temperatures are approaching or exceeding El Niño thresholds in the austral winter. It says that the tropical Pacific Ocean subsurface has warmed substantially in recent weeks and further warming is likely in the coming months. The US Climate Prediction Center and other global weather institutions have already predicted possibility of less rain in India during Monsoon this year due to the El Nino effect.
Along with scanty rain prediction for 2014, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, is also predicting that depending on the size of the El Niño, 2014 and, more likely, 2015, might turn out to be the warmest years on record. Gavin Schmidt, deputy director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, says that during the Earth’s warmest years, 2010 and 2005, similar weather patterns were seen. Indonesia’s Meteorological, Climatology and Geophysics Agency also says that it’s been almost five years since the last El Nino event. An El Niño trend is likely to develop this year.
What does this mean for India? El Nino, which occurs every four to 12 year cyclically had last hit India's Monsoon in 2009, leading to the worst drought in the country in nearly four decades. If El Nino hits this year, then a grim prediction awaits India saying that El Nino conditions may possibly impact Monsoon this year, triggering drought in parts of India. El Nino can create severe drought in India, resulting in a major downfall in crop production. It would also bring down soybean, palm oil, sugar and rice yields from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. In Australia it brings down crops of wheat, barley and canola. In China, Corn production would be affected. Only plus point of El Nino is that a strong El-Nino is beneficial to crops such as coffee and cocoa and keep their global prices in check.
Scientists in India are still debating about whether El Nino conditions will hit India and what would be it's intensity? However precautionary measures need to start almost immediately. A senior scientist, engaged with research programme on Climate Change, agriculture and Food security (CCAFS), says that the policy makers can certainly not take a chance. He adds:
“Though India had enough food-grain stock to meet any drought situation, there is a need to take precautionary measures to protect the vulnerable farmers. Extending effective insurance cover, timely availability of weather information and proper distribution of water, seeds and other ingredients are some of the measures which will help the country in adverse situation.”
There are other factors too, besides the loss in agricultural production from India's point of view. First is the drinking water shortage. Many states like Maharashtra are totally dependent on rainwater for drinking water needs. Fodder shortage may be another source of worry. In many parts of India, huge hydroelectric generating stations provide electric power. These depend entirely upon the rain water to generate power. Any drought like condition is bound to reduce availability of power.
This grim scenario appears to be a likely possibility, for which we need to brace ourselves up. The shortages however are always transitory in nature and can always be managed. What is the most scary part of this scenario is the effect that this would have on economy and the Indian Rupee, which are already reeking under double digit inflation and costly money.
Unfortunately there are no quick measures or remedies.
27th February 2014