The parched bed of Chandola Lake after a drought in 2019 (Photo: AFP)
THERE ARE TWO OPPOSING theories for the march of history. One is that it is the individual, the Great Man, who shapes it through ambition, ability, and grit. The second says circumstances create the man, and what happened would have happened anyway, just that someone else would have done it—if Hitler was never born, there would be another Hitler. There is also however a third explanation: the climate, and for that, look at the incredible success of Francisco Pizarro who, with a few hundred men, took over the entire Inca empire of Peru with its lakhs of soldiers. It then led to an unending stream of silver and gold going from its American colonies to Spain, which further propelled the colonial age. Pizarro changed history but it took him two failed expeditions before he reached the Inca capital and executed their king. The reason the third expedition was successful was that weather conditions were suddenly different. As an article on the website of NASA’s Earth Observatory says: “When Pizarro returned in 1531-32, his ships made haste down the coast, pushed along again by strong northeasterlies—the kind that blows in El Niño years. Once Spanish troops moved inland, they found blooming deserts, swollen rivers, and rainfall in the usually arid regions of Peru and Ecuador. The humid air and moist land allowed the conquistadors to sustain their long march and to avoid Incan settlements on the way to establishing a foothold in the country.”
El Niño was something Pizarro had no clue about, but the natives that he decimated were aware of it. In his book El Niño in History, César Caviedes writes about Peruvian fishermen noticing that starting in December, the fish changed because the waters had become warmer. Along with that, there were rains in what was their summer and because “this set of changes happened around Christmastime, the fishermen called it El Niño, meaning the Child Jesus.” The phenomenon would become amplified frequently. “Erwin Schweigger, a German marine biologist who spent most of his professional life in Peru, observed that in certain years, this annual occurrence—called minor El Niño—was supplanted by extensive invasions of equatorial warm waters that would expand much farther south than Pariñas Point, and last throughout the southern summer. He also noticed that these events were accompanied by considerable variations in the weather—dense cloudiness, high air humidity, frequent thunderstorms, and heavy rains—and posited that these changes had to do with sizable alterations in the behavior of water and air masses across the entire tropical Pacific, and not with the short-lived El Niño episodes of early summer. These severe events he called major El Niños.”
For a long time, it was thought to be a regional phenomenon, but now we know differently. In fact, every corner of the earth becomes impacted by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the technical term it is known by. For the last few years, India has been experiencing extremely good monsoons and the benefits that follow from them. This was because El Niño has an opposite phenomenon called La Niña, where the waters of the Pacific Ocean around the equator become colder than usual. La Niña went on for three years and India’s agriculture thrived. But at the beginning of 2023, meteorologists suspected the good spell might be at an end. Mahesh Palawat, vice president, Meteorology and Climate Change, Skymet Weather Services, India’s largest private weather forecasting company, says, “Since January, we have been seeing indications that El Niño will be developing.” They didn’t know for certain whether the change would happen, or the extent of it. There is no longer any doubt. He says, “We are now in the transition phase from La Niña to El Niño. This is a neutral phase. Sea surface temperatures are rising week by week. By June, when the monsoon will make an onset, there are chances of around 30 to 40 per cent of El Niño. And as we progress further, the probability is 80 per cent. It is certain that El Niño will be there during the monsoon and will have an adverse impact on its second half, particularly from July onwards. August and September rains could be below-normal. As we have predicted, the monsoon rain during June will be near-normal and it will gradually decrease as we move further.”
India is especially vulnerable because, despite modernisation and industrialisation, its GDP remains hostage to the monsoon. There were 21 El Niño years since 1950. There were 15 drought events, out of which El Niño was responsible for 10. In the last El Niño year that we had, 2018-19, India got deficient rainfall
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The return of El Niño is good neither for India, nor the world. The journal Science published a research article on May 18 titled ‘Persistent effect of El Niño on global economic growth’ that estimated the economic toll it takes. The researchers looked at historical GDP data of 147 countries from 1969 to 2019 and after a statistical analysis, found that in two severe El Niño years, 1982-83 and 1997-98, global losses in economic income amounted to $4.1 trillion and $5.7 trillion. What made it worse was that underdeveloped and poor countries suffered the most. The toll in the future is also going to be huge. Reporting on the paper, Down To Earth wrote: “El Nino, a climate pattern predicted to strike in 2023, is estimated to cost the world $3 trillion in losses by 2029, a new study estimated. The losses can go up to $84 trillion from 2020-2099, according to the paper published in Science journal… In India, the 1982-83 and 1997-98 El Nino events cost roughly 3 per cent and 1.5 per cent of the country’s GDP per capita, respectively.”
India is especially vulnerable because, despite modernisation and industrialisation, its GDP remains hostage to the monsoon. At the end of April, the credit ratings agency CareEdge came out with a report on El Niño’s probability for 2023 and its impact on the Indian economy. They looked at what happened in the past in India. There were 21 El Niño years since 1950. There were 15 drought events, out of which El Niño was responsible for 10. In the last El Niño year that we had, 2018-19, India got deficient rainfall. CareEdge’s chief economist, Rajani Sinha, says, “If there is an El Niño, there is a high probability that the monsoon will get impacted. But there are two or three things that we have to take into account. One is what will be its severity? Because if it’s a weak one, monsoon may not get significantly impacted in India. Second, at what time is El Niño hitting? If it’s not clashing with our monsoon period, we will not get impacted much. Third, is there any other weather-related factor that could negate the impact of El Niño? We have highlighted the years when we had El Niño, but normal monsoon.” The report gave examples of 1994, 1997, and 2006 when rainfall was normal despite El Niño.
Skymet has already forecast a deficient monsoon but the Indian Meteorological Division (IMD) said it would be normal. Sinha thinks IMD’s stance could change with new data and a poor monsoon will have a number of consequences. “The quick and immediate fallout would be on agri-production being lower. That will have an adverse impact on rural demand even though it would be relatively less than what it was, say, a decade back because our dependence on the agriculture sector has reduced. The third is the impact on inflation. Earlier, we saw a clear strong correlation between El Niño and its impact on inflation but in the last decade, it has gone down, and that could be because the government is intervening more strongly in the market to contain inflation.” All in all, even though there will be less damage than in the past, it could still be significant.
Skymet’s Palawat says, “If the progress of monsoon is not satisfactory in the month of June, then sowing of the crop will get delayed. It will also adversely impact the kharif output. If states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra do not receive adequate timely rainfall, the agriculture output and economy will suffer.”
It won’t be just 2023. El Niños can usually go on for a couple of years. “Models are indicating that it will be evolving and strengthening during winters. So, the impact will be felt for the next monsoon also. But we have to wait and see. Sometimes it devolves by the second year. It is not a certain parameter that it will continue for two or three years.” He also says that because of climate change and global warming, El Niño incidences are becoming more than La Niña, which is again worrying for a rain-dependent country. India needs to come up with long-term strategies to meet it. Research on seeds that can withstand climate change, moving farmers away from crops like paddy that require more water, rainwater harvesting, channelising rivers, improving irrigation facilities in rainfed regions, etc. are all necessary.
The government meanwhile is getting ready. Speaking at a National Conference on Agriculture-Kharif Campaign-2023 conference at the beginning of May, Agriculture Secretary Manoj Ahuja said that there needs to be “complete preparedness at the state level.” A report in the news agency PTI said: “Ahuja asked states to ensure that there is adequate availability of seeds for conducting sowing operations in case of less rainfall. He told states to assess the situation and make arrangements in (sic) this month only. He also stressed on (sic) disseminating a single advisory to farmers for weather update (sic). The Union agriculture secretary also talked about the importance of climate-resilient seed varieties, which has helped in (sic) growth of agriculture production despite climate challenge.”
Much of El Niño’s challenges are going to be unforeseen. It could range from droughts and flooding to social and political unrest. Because of its impact on inflation, it might even have a bearing on how people vote in the General Election next year. To give an instance of how far-reaching its effects can be, turn to one of the most famous disasters of the previous century—the sinking of the Titanic. El Niño, it has been argued, can lead to an increase in icebergs in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1912, an El Niño of the previous year led to this phenomenon. César Caviedes writes in his book, quoting a study that made this connection: “The authors’ contention that these effects tend to continue into the spring of the year after particularly strong El Niño episodes is (sic) substantiated by 1912, which had the highest iceberg count between 1900 and 1929. Thus one might speculate that the Titanic would not have met her tragic end on April 15, 1912, had it not been for an El Niño occurrence in 1911 that sent icebergs drifting farther south during the subsequent northern spring.”