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Forecast of ‘above-normal’ monsoon sparks hope for economy, but there’s a catch!

Forecast of ‘above-normal’ monsoon sparks hope for economy, but there’s a catch!
The southwest monsoon, probably the most-awaited meteorological event in India, is just around the corner — with onset over Kerala likely in the next 5 days. Consistent with its previous forecast, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) maintains that above-normal monsoon rains will grace almost the entire country in the next four months.

But, is this really good news? Beyond the headlines, if you delve deeper into the forecasts, a worrying trend emerges. Amid ongoing impacts of climate change, scientists have been warning us that not all ‘above-normal’ or ‘normal’ monsoon seasons turn out to be good for the economy. The inter-seasonal and spatial variations of monsoon rains tend to have huge implications in terms of both agriculture and natural disasters.

Even this year, despite forecasts of ‘above-normal’ rainfall, most spells are expected to be short and intense rather than continuous and pleasant, and this could spell trouble for many flood-prone parts of the country.
Economy's dependence on monsoons
A monsoon is deemed average or normal when the country as a whole records 96%-104% of its 50-year average of 87 cm between June and September. And this time around, monsoon rains are likely to be 106% of the long-term average, per IMD director-general Mrutyunjay Mohapatra’s announcement.

Further, the season might witness deficient rains in Northeast India, while the monsoon ‘core zone’, including most of Central and South India will enjoy excesses. This change in fate from last year’s poor-performing monsoon has been widely attributed to El Niño’s departure and La Niña’s arrival.

India’s largely agrarian economy heavily relies on these rains. Over 70% of the country’s rainfall requirements are fulfilled by the southwest monsoon. So, forecasts of above-normal rains would usually bode well for us. Not only will the monsoonal rains replenish our drying reservoirs and aquifers, but they would also give our agricultural outputs and overall economy a facelift.

The monsoon has become an intrinsic factor in the calculations of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for its power to impact food prices. And so, good rains could help bring down inflation of food items — a problem that the government has been grappling with in recent months. As per experts, the area sowed will be high because of the kind of rainfall expected for the season.
But what happens when the rains are more intense?
This year, the positive outlook for the monsoon comes with an important caveat. The distribution of rainfall across the country may not be uniform, as per forecasts from most agencies and private forecasters. And this has been a trend of late, as climate change alters the monsoon patterns, potentially leading to fewer rainy days and more intense downpours.

It is thus possible that some regions might experience flooding while others suffer rainfall deficiencies. In other words, residents in parts of the country expecting above-normal rainfall will probably need more than just a sturdy umbrella this monsoon season.

Flooding and waterlogging is a huge problem in urban centres, but it can be just as damaging for the economy when they hit farmlands. According to Dr Raghu Murtugudde, affiliated with IIT Bombay and the University of Maryland, crop damages will depend on when the rainfall will be very heavy in which region. Some parts of the crop calendar are less vulnerable than others. Onions can rot in the ground if it rains heavily near harvesting time, for example, he explains.

Farmers are going to have to be very careful to ensure that the Kharif crops do not end up facing the brunt of these rains. As Dr Mutrugudde put it, “hope for the best and prepare for the worst as usual”.

Furthermore, intense rainfall activity has also been associated with more landslide risks in hilly areas. Loss of life and property damage is not uncommon in these scenarios – cue Himachal’s terrible landslides and flooding during the last rainy season. Local communities and governments must brace themselves for the worst as well.

And the cherry on top? Despite projections for all this rain, daytime temperatures are expected to remain above-normal in June. Northwest India, in particular, is likely to experience heatwave conditions for four to six days next month, compared to the normal of three days, Mohapatra said.


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