India was the subject of chatter in both the agricultural and climatological communities during 2015’s El Niño season, regarding the state of the country’s annual monsoon. India, a major player in global agriculture markets, had already suffered from a poor monsoon season in 2014, and with the El Niño conditions, it was expected to suffer again in 2015. As feared, 2015 delivered another disappointing year for rainfall to the sub-continent, resulting in crop failure and suffering in the rural parts of the country. With bated breath, the 2016 monsoon brought hope to the country for a return to “normal” weather conditions to bring some relief to the ailing agriculture sector, and this time, mother nature delivered.
The consequences of dry weather are particularly significant in India. The country receives three-quarters of its annual rainfall from the monsoon, typically running between June to September of each year. India is also home to hundreds of millions of farmers, the majority of whom rely on rainfed agriculture on 60 percent of India’s cultivated land. The annual monsoon rains are responsible for feeding many of India’s primary crops, including rice, millet, corn, groundnut, pigeon pea, soybean, and cotton, among others.
In early October 2016, SkyMet, a private weather service in India, reported that this year’s monsoon brought 97 percent of “normal” rainfall to the parched country. Consulting the data, aWhere’s localized weather observations indicate that this year’s monsoon led to above average rainfall in large parts of India in June and July, followed by a dry August and a mixed September. October, typically outside monsoon season, has since been wetter than usual in the north, while dryer in the south.
Figure 1: The above image provides a localized comparison of this year’s monsoon rainfall to the average of the last 10 years. Areas in blue indicate significantly more rainfall than the norm, while areas in red indicate significantly less.
The return of “normal” rainfall was appreciated by both farmers and policymakers, after two disappointing monsoon seasons which both delivered less than 90 percent of typical rainfall. aWhere’s data can yet again provide a picture of the significance of this shift, showing that in each month, a sizable portion of the country received 75 percent or more rainfall than last year. Notably, while Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh received significantly more rainfall than average, still others, such as Gujarat and the southwest coast, received less.
Figure 2: The above images display the count of aWhere’s virtual weather stations by their percent divergence from last year’s precipitation figures. The images show that in each month of the monsoon season, and in October, that rainfall tended to exceed that of last year in most locations.
Despite the return to normal conditions in 2016, the ghosts of recent monsoons are not likely to be forgotten, as they speak volumes about India’s ability to cope with the future. The concern surrounding recent monsoons came as much from broader concerns about India’s ability to adapt to climate change as it did from immediate food security challenges. India has been no stranger to such droughts in recent years, as the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology reported that the country experienced monsoon droughts in 2002, 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2015. By comparison, the last year of monsoon floods recorded was in 1994.
In an effort to respond to recent droughts, India’s government has announced efforts to expand the country’s irrigation systems, to alleviate stress from poor and erratic rainfall. Meanwhile, NGO and private efforts are also stepping up to help farmers cope with the stress of an unpredictable climate. A partnership among the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Microsoft India and aWhere is one such example. Through this partnership, ICRISAT is sending SMS text advisories using observed rainfall and forecast data from aWhere, as well as local soil data, to make recommendations on sowing dates and fertilizer application to farmers. These advisories can help farmers make decisions about planting in the face of uncertain rainfall patterns due to variable weather conditions. While there is no way to ensure the monsoon delivers rain as expected, there are ways that information and services can help alleviate adverse impacts related to abnormal weather conditions.