Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The big monsoon letdown

Time has now run out to grow as much paddy as last year. If it’s any later, the quantity and quality will suffer.

Tuesday’s figures show that the monsoon in the main growing area, the northwest, is a huge 40 per cent below average.

In Assam, there is 66 per cent less rain than what it should be.

Clearly there is just not enough water to sow the crop. Sugarcane, pulses and oilseeds like groundnut and soyabean are equally badly hit.

BP Yadav, director of Met department, said, "The monsoon situation in north west remains a worry. Some parts have been good, but this region is far from making up."

Across India, the monsoon has been described as "erratic". Rainfall is 23 per cent below par and economists warn that these numbers could be devastating.

Besides, as production drops the fear is that the increase in food prices will impact the economy.

Prof GS Bhalla, an agricultural economist said, "If the agriculture production goes down, then it directly affects the income of the people, which means that demand for commodities goes down and the economy and GDP on the whole get affected."

However, the recent rain has meant India's top reservoirs have been filled to a large extent, thereby improving water supply and the power situation in some places. But even there, the levels are 27 per cent below normal.

Questions on the monsoon

The lackadaisical performance of the south-west monsoon has sent a nervous shiver across the country. The likely emergence of El Nino, the name given to the warming of the Pacific Ocean and which often influences the Indian monsoon adversely, coupled with the failure of the monsoon to gather momentum in the key north-western agricultural belt, has added to the worry. Under the circumstances, the assertion by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) that much of the rain deficit in June will be made up in July (which is mostly over) and August has cut little ice. While some sense an imminent drought, resulting in a poor kharif harvest, the agriculture ministry still hopes that agricultural production will be in the normal range. The finance ministry is worried, as a drought is the last thing it would like to cope with during an economic downturn.

The monsoon should be viewed from three angles. From the hydrological angle, the situation is already disquieting. Most of the country’s reservoirs have been drawn down heavily, resulting in precariously low water levels. Though refilling has now begun in most regions, the reservoirs may not be adequate replenished to run hydel power plants at full capacity and cater to other water needs in the post-monsoon period. Most hydel power plants ran at less than 40 per cent plant load factor in June, though there has been some improvement subsequently.

From an agricultural viewpoint, the picture is more mixed. A delay of a couple of weeks in the onset of rains, as has happened in many parts of the country, is manageable as the peak sowing season in southern and central India extends up to mid-July and the monsoon has, fortunately, revived in these parts from the beginning of this month. The past three weeks have seen good rainfall in most parts of the country, barring the north-west and north-east. In the north-west, crop planting does not rely too much on the rains because 80 to 90 per cent of the cropland is irrigated; and in the north-east, which is a high rainfall region, even less than normal rainfall is good enough for seeding. Also, any shortfall in paddy planting can be made up by larger sowing of less water-needing crops like coarse cereals and cotton.

From the meteorological viewpoint, it is too early to pass judgment on this year’s monsoon. While rainfall in June was as much as 46 per cent below normal, the first week of July was near-normal and the second week 6 per cent above normal. That is what has prompted the IMD to estimate the total rainfall deficit at 24 per cent by mid-July, a figure that writers like Shreekant Sambrani have questioned. Central India, which was the most rain-starved in June, has received good rains in the past couple of weeks, as has the southern peninsula. Fingers now need to be kept crossed, because the level of precipitation in the coming fortnight will be critical to the nature of the 2009 monsoon

Monsoon may shift to north-east

Central and western India will continue to receive moderate to heavy showers over the next 4-5 days as the deep depression currently over the land tracks west-northwest initially. But the system may start weakening sooner than later and track more to the west to set up another wet spell over Gujarat and south-west Rajasthan. Mumbai is a little south of where the action is, but will still get rains.

There would be a marked reduction in rains over central India from around July 26, triggering a chain of events leading up to overall weakening of monsoon activity.

Break-monsoon signals

There is no official `break-monsoon' call yet, but some signature features - retreat of the monsoon trough to the Himalayan foothills, `segmentation' of south-westerlies and arrival of westerly trough over north India - are about to unravel.

Break-monsoon is manifest in the interruption of monsoon rainfall by spells of sparse rainfall during the mid-monsoon months of July and August over the plains of northern India.

This happens when a prevailing monsoon system moves from the plains in a northerly direction toward the sub-montane region of the Himalayas, taking the monsoon trough along with it.

This intra-seasonal recess in activity over central India and the northwest will see rains migrating to east and north-east India and along parts of the south-east coast.

The segmentation of the monsoon westerlies will see one branch extending straight over central India and further north, while the other will fork out over the peninsula and beyond. Kerala and Karnataka make gains from the latter branch.

This can also be extrapolated to a situation where monsoon rain gets shifted half way across the globe to the west Pacific. A building system in the west Pacific can appropriate the Arabian Sea flows and grow. On Tuesday, an incipient system was traced to the waters of the central Pacific.


Dr Akhilesh Gupta, lead operational forecaster and Adviser to the Ministry of Science and Technology, said that monsoon westerlies may start dominating the plains of north India from July 26, replacing the easterlies.

India Meteorological Department (IMD) sees a fresh `low' spinning up over north-west and adjoining west-central Bay of Bengal around July 24, though its orientation may just help entrench the weak monsoon conditions.

The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting has reinstated its watch for this `low' in the Bay. But the system is tipped to travel north-northeast (away from central India) and might land up over the extreme east of the country. This `low' would combine with the itinerant westerly trough rolling into north India to trigger prolonged and widespread heavy to very heavy rains over east India, the entire Himalayan foothills and Nepal.

The evolving weather over the east will need to be closely watched since the region is vulnerable to flash-floods and landslides from sustained heavy rains.

But one stand-out feature of the macro weather situation is that the Arabian Sea flows are not forecast to weaken significantly, despite the contra-indicative signals obtaining over land, Dr Gupta said.


Strong flows might just help rub-off some activity over the Bay of Bengal, which can bring the seasonal monsoon trough back to its normal position, straddling the plains and eventually dipping into the Bay of Bengal system.

The break-monsoon ceases, and normal monsoon conditions are re-established, when the monsoon trough returns to the plains and intensifies. This occurs in association with a `low' developing in the Bay and moving toward the plains.

Meanwhile, an IMD forecast said that the deep depression over land would cause widespread rainfall with heavy to very heavy falls and isolated extremely heavy falls over Chhattisgarh and Vidarbha during the next 24 hours.

Fairly widespread rainfall activity with isolated heavy to very heavy falls is likely over interior Orissa and Telangana during next 24 hours. The heavy rain belt will shift to over Madhya Pradesh, where it will be active for the next two days.

Fairly widespread rainfall activity with isolated heavy to very heavy falls is also likely over Gujarat and Maharashtra during the next two to three days.

Heavy to very heavy rainfall has been forecast also over Madhya Maharashtra, Konkan, Goa and Marathwada, while it will be isolated heavy over coastal Karnataka and Kerala during the next two days.