El Niño and La Niña are weather patterns in the Pacific Ocean that influence weather around the world. While La Nina benefits India, El Niño creates warm winters and dry, hot summers. El Niño is characterized by abnormal warming of surface ocean currents in the eastern and central equatorial Pacific, affecting weather patterns in many regions of the world. It worsens summer monsoon rainfall in India, but is associated with increased rainfall in parts of southern South America, the southern United States, the Horn of Africa, and Central Asia.
The World Meteorological Organization has announced that El Nino is in place and has a 90% chance of continuing through the second half of 2023. The emergence of El Nino could lead to breaking temperature records and causing more extreme heat around the world, its secretary-general Petri Tals said. The declaration serves as a signal to governments around the world to organize preparedness and limit impacts on health, ecosystems and economics. Early warning and proactive measures for extreme weather events associated with this major weather phenomenon are essential to protect lives and livelihoods.
The first La Nina of the 21st century and the third since 1950 occurred from 2020 to 2023. The cooling effects of La Niña conditions temporarily slowed rising global temperatures. Despite this, the past eight years have been the warmest on record. This indicates an unprecedented increase in fossil fuel burning and deforestation.
The RBI governor also finds El Nino a hurdle in his effort to control inflation and bring it below 4 percent. The RBI’s study concluded that despite El Nino, rainfall will return to normal and inflation will be negative. The study suggests that the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) often interacts with El Niño and La Nina to determine the actual rainfall. IOD is the difference between sea surface temperatures in the western and eastern Indian Oceans. If the temperature in the west is higher than in the east, it causes more rainfall in India (positive IOD) and vice versa. Evidence of higher average inflation in negative IOD years also corroborates the RBI’s implication. Agricultural growth and inflation were widely experienced during La Niña years, but remained a function of IOD oscillations.
In a release, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) admitted that there is a high probability of El Niño conditions developing in the equatorial Pacific during the mid-monsoon till the first quarter of 2024. However, IMD Director General Mrityunjay Mohapatra expressed hope. The IMD has consistently predicted normal rainfall for the current season.
Northwest India experienced another extreme weather phenomenon from July 9, when four to five days of torrential rains triggered landslides and floods that washed away buildings, cars, roads and bridges, spreading misery everywhere. More than 100 lives were lost in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Chandigarh and Delhi. Experts attributed the rains in the region to a deadly confluence of two systems, monsoon winds and western disturbances. Earlier in 2013, a similar confluence was responsible for the Kedarnath floods, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of pilgrims. Such interactions are more likely to cause incessant rain and flooding in a warming world. In mid-June 2013, a western disturbance from a low pressure originating in the Bay of Bengal developed to pull moisture into North India.
Earlier, Cyclone Biparjoy brought heavy rainfall in Gujarat, West Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and South Uttar Pradesh in June 2023 and now the confluence of Western Disturbance and Monsoon flow has brought additional rainfall in few days. Cloudbursts are common in big cities like Delhi. Delhi’s drainage network can handle only 50 mm of rain in 24 hours. Time to upgrade it to 100mm.
Over the same period, many countries have experienced excessive rainfall, with red alerts in New York and parts of the US, China, Japan and Russia receiving heavy rainfall and inundation in many areas. The forecast indicates that the human misery will continue throughout July.
As correctly predicted by the IMD, north-west India received excessive rainfall. But they are not beneficial for rain-fed agriculture because, although the total rainfall of the season is normal, the dry spell is followed by heavy rainfall for a few days. On the other hand, floods cause damage to crops. RBI may find it difficult to control food inflation.
Central and peninsular India is struggling with normal rainfall due to El Nino conditions. Positive IOD oscillations can be expected to provide some relief by neutralizing the impact. However, El Nino is likely to create a warm winter this year and reduce wheat production in the country. In an election year, this may concern governance.
Historically, droughts during El Niño years have had significant consequences for governments. In 1876-78 and 1899-1900, due to the abuse of British rule, 10 million people were deprived of it. The famine of 1876–78 led to economic criticism of colonial government management by Dadabhai Noroji and Romesh Chunder Dutta, and prompted William Wedderburn and AO Hume to establish the Indian National Congress, a forum for Indians to express their views against famine control. Drought caused by El Nino in 1918 led to the Kheda Satyagraha, which brought fame to Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. In post-independence India, the El Niño-induced drought of 1964-65 and 1965-66 brought about the Green Revolution.
Despite severe droughts in 1982-83 and 2015-16, governments led by Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, respectively, cruised due to effective responses to the challenges. Moreover, these were not election years. 2023-24 El Nino can cause surprise in 2024 Lok Sabha election results.
(The writer is a retired head of the Karnataka Forest Force)
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