El Nino threatens to disrupt India's harvests

Stranded villagers awaiting rescue by helicopter in the western state of Gujarat on Wednesday. Forecasters expect a significant weakening of India's monsoon next month.
Stranded villagers awaiting rescue by helicopter in the western state of Gujarat on Wednesday. Forecasters expect a significant weakening of India's monsoon next month.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW DELHI - The El Nino weather system strengthening in the Pacific Ocean is threatening to curb India's monsoon and hamper Prime Minister Narendra Modi's chances of capping food costs.

This is as the killer heatwave in neighbouring Pakistan eases off, with cloud cover and lower temperatures bringing relief yesterday to the badly affected port city of Karachi.

Temperatures which had hit 45 deg C over the past two weeks fell to around 34 deg C. But this was not before the death toll had risen to more than 1,000 and it may reach 1,500, according to Mr Anwar Kazmi, a spokesman for the Edhi Foundation charity. He had been quoted by Bloomberg as saying on Wednesday that more than 2,000 had died.

Meanwhile, the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology predicts a "large-scale reduction" in monsoon rains in the first half of next month after a wetter-than- normal June that caused Mumbai's worst floods in 10 years. The El Nino, which forecasters are likening to a record event almost two decades ago, may disrupt sowing and stunt the growth of rice, cotton and soya beans.

Mr Modi has been banking on a normal monsoon to help curb inflation and buoy sales of everything from smartphones to gold among the 833 million people who depend on farming in India.

While the early downpours prompted the longest advance in Indian shares since January this week, the prospect of insufficient rain renews concern that damaged crops will boost food prices. "If the prediction of weak rains prove correct, there's going to be an adverse impact on the economy as a whole, more so on agriculture," said Dr Shashanka Bhide, director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

"The government's worry last year was to keep inflation down. This year also, the main worry would be the impact on prices."

Mr Modi has taken steps to control food prices during his first year in office. These include selling some wheat stockpiles on the open market, pushing states to let farmers sell fruit and vegetables directly to consumers and capping growth of guaranteed prices for cereal crops.

An El Nino can disrupt harvests around the globe by baking parts of Asia, dumping rain across South America and bringing cooler summers to North America. It poses a risk to the global economy as it threatens to hurt crops and boost food prices, according to Citigroup.

This year's El Nino, the first since 2010, has strengthened and is showing characteristics similar to the 1997-1998 event, Australia's Bureau of Meteorology has warned. That system was the strongest on record.

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2015, with the headline 'El Nino threatens to disrupt India's harvests'. Print Edition | Subscribe