Opinion

All you wanted to know about El Nino

BHAVANA ACHARYA | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on March 10, 2014

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Polar vortex is old news now. Welcome to the El Nino. El Nino, Spanish for ‘The little boy’, is a weather disturbance first noticed (and named) by fishermen off the coast of South America centuries ago.

What is it?

Under normal weather conditions, trade winds ferry warm ocean currents westwards, from the eastern and central Pacific towards Indonesia and Australia. Warmer ocean waters in these regions then heat up the air above, leading to cloud formation and triggering the prodigious monsoon.

But in the years where the El Nino takes shape, eastern and central Pacific regions experience abnormal warming of the sea.

This leads to increased cloud formation and torrential rains in Peru and some sections of America. The ocean currents in the western Pacific remain cool, which means weak monsoon rains in Indonesia and Australia and sometimes in India.

Why is it important?

The El Nino usually occurs once in every 3 -7 years. Its effect tends to be felt in India around August, bang in the middle of the south-west monsoon.

As a munificent south-west monsoon is critical for India’s main kharif crop, El Nino is a dreaded word for Indian farmers.

A weak monsoon directly impacts agricultural output. The government may be forced to raise support prices of crops to incentivise farmers to plant more.

In 2002, an El Nino year, average rainfall dropped 20 per cent below normal and foodgrain production dropped almost 18 per cent. Usually, lower farm output feeds directly into inflation.

Then lower agricultural production results in slower GDP growth too, as agriculture makes up 18 per cent of GDP. Rural incomes may also moderate, in turn reducing demand for everything from two-wheelers to shampoos.

Should all this occur this year, the Indian economy may be right back where it started, with low growth and spiralling inflation.

But enough of the doomsday predictions. Let’s practise some positive thinking. While droughts in India have usually coincided with an El Nino effect, all El Nino years have not resulted in droughts for India.

In the previous 10 El Nino years, India suffered a rainfall deficit of 10 per cent or more only in six. 1997, for instance, was a year where the El Nino was strong, but the monsoon gods were generous; rainfall was 2 per cent higher than normal.

Why should I care?

You wouldn’t like to pay more for that bag of rice or sugar, would you? That’s the possibility if rainfall is below average over north-west India.

That would mean higher official inflation numbers — cereals, pulses, milk, vegetables, fruits, beverages and so on make up about half the Consumer Price Index.

If inflation rears its head, you can count on RBI to turn all hawkish and raise rates further. Then your loan payments can rise, piling more on the cost of living.

The bottomline

It’s a no-brainer that weak monsoons kick up a host of problems. The El Nino too appears quite likely to make an appearance. So how about some quick yagnas to appease the rain gods?

Maybe they can ensure bountiful rains, even if ‘the little boy’ is on the prowl.

Published on March 10, 2014
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