Met department's forecast of a 'normal' monsoon offers little hope
Over 43% of the country is facing drought. Poor pre-monsoon rainfall and a delayed onset of southwest monsoon has kept farmers on tenterhooks
Last year by now, Manoj Laxmanrao Shembde Patil had prepared his farm for sowing of kharif (summer or monsoon) crop of Bt cotton. Several other fellow farmers in his village Khade in Georai taluka of Beed were busy exchanging notes on sowing of kharif crops of Bt cotton, soybean, millets, etc.
However, this year, there is a lull in sowing activities.
And, this sombre mood is not limited to Patil's village or taluka alone. Farmers across Maharashtra have a prayer on their lips with their eyes set on the sky. They have been struggling with successive droughts and crop losses, and this year's drought seems like a last nail into their coffin.
"It's been more than a year and our woes don't seem to end," said Patil, who, last February, lost his entire rabi (wheat) crop of wheat, chana (gram), jowar (sorghum) and maize to hailstorm. "During last kharif season, I planted Bt cotton crop, which was lost to pink bollworm attack and erratic rains. I could not grow any rabi crop this year due to an acute water scarcity and drought," he added.
Officially, 28,524 villages in 151 talukas of the state are declared drought-hit. Maharashtra has a total of 358 talukas, hence more than 42% of the state is under drought. Semi-arid Marathwada region, where Patil's Beed district is located, is in the grips of an unprecedented drought with several ghost villages where families have migrated due to non-availability of water.
Meanwhile, water levels in reservoirs across the state are fast dipping with several projects already bone dry. As of June 4, the state has only 7.6% live water storage in all its dam projects. Situation is extremely worrisome in Aurangabad division (semi-arid Marathwada is part of it) where only 0.69% water is available. Seven major projects in Aurangabad division, including Manjara dam and Majalgaon dam in Beed district, are dry.
Patil hasn't prepared his field for kharif sowing. He is scared of any more crop losses. "I have heard this year's monsoon is delayed, so I am waiting and watching. What more can I do?" he said. As drought compensation, Patil has received Rs 4,000 from the state government, which, he claims, will help him buy seeds for kharif sowing.
But, everything now depends on the monsoon rainfall.
And, the onset of southwest monsoon is already delayed. In its May 15 statement, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) forecasted a slightly delayed onset of monsoon over Kerala. As against the usual onset date of June 1, the southwest monsoon is expected to reach Kerala on June 6 with a model error of plus or minus four days.
"The monsoon isn't expected to reach interior Maharashtra, such as Marathwada, Vidarbha and most of Madhya Maharashtra regions at least till June 15," said Akshay Deoras, a meteorologist pursuing doctoral study at the Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, UK. "Maharashtra is facing severe heat wave and farmers are advised not to go in for kharif sowing right now, as lack of sufficient rains may lead to sowing failure and financial losses to the farmers," he cautioned. Maharashtra government has also issued an advisory to this effect on May 26.
Is 'normal' monsoon a good news?
On May 31, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) released its second long range forecast of this year's southwest monsoon rainfall. It has forecasted 'normal' rainfall of 96% of the long period average (LPA) over the country as a whole with a model error of plus or minus 4%.
The LPA is the weighted average of rainfall that India received in southwest monsoon season (June-September) from 1951 to 2000 and is pegged at 89 cm.
The IMD defines 'normal' monsoon rainfall if it in the range of 96% to 104% of the LPA. This year's monsoon rainfall forecast of 96% of LPA is, thus, on the borderline of 'normal' rainfall.
Incidentally, last year, the IMD had forecasted a 'normal' monsoon rainfall of 97% of LPA, but the country recorded 'below normal' monsoon rainfall with a rainfall departure of minus 9%.
Last southwest monsoon season, Marathwada region in Maharashtra received deficient rainfall of minus 22%. Gujarat, parts of Karnataka, Bihar Jharkhand and north eastern states, too, received deficient rainfall thereby triggering drought in several parts of the country.
As per South Asia Drought Monitor managed by the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Gandhinagar, as of May 30, more than 43% country is in grips of drought. "The forecast of 'normal' monsoon does not mean an end to drought in the country (see map). Some pockets are facing long-term drought for the last two to three years and are unlikely to recover in a scenario of monsoon rainfall of 96% of LPA. These parched pockets need above normal well distributed rainfall," said Vimal Mishra, associate professor at the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Gandhinagar.
The Met department in its May 31 statement has also forecasted region-wise rainfall in the country between June and September. In the North-West India region, it has forecasted rainfall of 94% of LPA; 100% of LPA over Central India; 97% of LPA over south Peninsula; and 91% of LPA over North-East India with a model error of plus or minus 8%.
As far as monthly rainfall is concerned, July is expected to have 95% of LPA and August 99% of LPA rainfall with a model error of plus or minus 9%. By July end, the IMD will issue another update on SW monsoon forecast.
"The IMD may have issued forecast of a 'normal' monsoon rainfall this year, but this long-range forecast is an average for the entire country as a whole," said RR Kelkar, former director general of IMD.
Simply put, it means some parts of the country will receive more than 96% of LPA rains, whereas others will receive much less than the forecasted average. "And, if latter happens to be in regions already facing drought, then situation will turn extremely worrisome. Also, note that none of the region-wise and monthly figures forecast by the IMD have a value beyond 100% of LPA," said Kelkar.
Sridhar Balasubramanian, associate professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Bombay also highlights concern around 'normal' monsoon forecast. "Overall 96% monsoon rainfall with model error of plus or minus 4% is a country wide forecast. Just like every year, there is going to be a high regional variability. Unfortunately, some places already under drought may continue to reel under drought like conditions," he warned.
According to Balasubramanian, last year's poor monsoon season followed by a poor pre-monsoon season this year has made things worse. "Even a normal monsoon this year is unlikely to alleviate the situation completely," he added.
In his own (unofficial) forecast of this year's southwest monsoon rainfall, Balasubramanian has predicted normal rainfall in Mumbai, Goa, Konkan region, Kerala and Peninsular India, Coastal Karnataka, and Central India. But, below normal monsoon rainfall in north-east region, Gujarat and north west India, north India and parts of south India such as Interior Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Some of these states are already drought-hit.
His analysis is primarily based on the ongoing weak El Niño, which will start devolving by July 2019, and the development of a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). El Niño and La Niña are the warm and cool phases of a recurring climate pattern across the tropical Pacific, which have impacts on the Indian summer monsoon. The IOD, defined by the difference in sea surface temperature between western pole in the Arabian Sea and an eastern pole in the eastern Indian Ocean south of Indonesia, also has a bearing on the southwest monsoon.
Balasubramanian is hopeful for Maharashtra's farmers: "In my opinion, this monsoon season is going be normal for Maharashtra. Hence, there is hope for farmers. June rainfall may be below normal. But July and August rainfall should be good. Hence, a delay in kharif sowing until around June 15, plus or minus two days, is advisable."
Poor pre-monsoon aggravates drought
This year rains in pre-monsoon season — March to May — have been deficient almost across the country. Maharashtra has recorded minus 80% rainfall departure in pre-monsoon season. Gujarat has had deficient rainfall of minus 86%. Both the states are struggling with an acute drought. Other states, such as Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, too, had poor pre-monsoon showers. (see map)
"Pre-monsoon showers help in increasing soil moisture, which is one of the indicators for farmers to prepare their fields for sowing. Maharashtra has had poor pre-monsoon rainfall this year and there is heat wave going on, which is not suitable for sowing of kharif crops," said Deoras.
And, the southwest monsoon is already delayed.
"A delayed onset of monsoon means there will be some deficit in June month's monsoon rainfall, which has a direct impact on sowing schedule of farmers," said Kelkar. "Sowing is a phased activity and farmers need to sow in time to catch rainfall at the right time as a large number of our farmers practice rainfed farming," he added.
Farmers like Patil have already delayed sowing. "Depending on when the rains come, I will plant Bt cotton or jowar. If the rains get delayed, then productivity of cotton crop will be affected as it is a three months crop," said Patil.
To alleviate agony of farmers like Patil who live in drought-prone areas of the country, Kelkar suggests developing a 'successive drought index', which can predict and forewarn areas likely to face drought based on prevailing factors and long-range forecast of IMD. "In spite of 'normal' monsoon rainfall, there are pockets in the country, such as Marathwada, which face consecutive droughts. There is a need to developed an index to issue drought warnings in advance. Statements like 96% of LPA make no sense to farmers," said Kelkar.
Mishra supports developing such an index. "By superimposing the recent long-range forecast of the IMD on the cumulative deficit rainfall map of the country of last two monsoon seasons, regions where drought is likely to persist can be indicated," said Mishra. Regions like Marathwada, north Tamil Nadu, parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh that are facing acute successive droughts need rains beyond the 'normal' monsoon rainfall range of 96-104% of LPA, he added.
And, this seems unlikely in the current southwest monsoon season. "Statistically, the country may receive 'normal' monsoon rainfall. But, drought may persist in some pockets, which could be disastrous," warned Mishra.