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Dry March threatens crop show

Dry March threatens crop show

NEW DELHI: Abnormally hot weather and lower than expected rains are raising the spectre of India facing another water shortage in the coming kharif season, said a senior official of the Indian Meteorological Department, the country’s weather forecasting agency.

“The high temperature is evaporating water bodies, including the country’s main reservoirs. If rains remain elusive in May-June, the cumulative stress will start building up,” said the official, who did not wish to be named.

India has yet to recover from the 2009 drought, the worst in 40 years. Rains have been 66% lower than normal in March. Temperature has been 4 to 7 degrees above normal, making it the hottest March in almost a decade.

The met department is now pegging its hopes for a normal monsoon this year mainly on the low probability of India facing a drought for two consecutive years and a weakening El Nino, a weather event in the Pacific Ocean. The first official forecast is expected April 15.

“It could be a near-normal monsoon. The water deficit may not be severe enough to get classified as a drought,” he said. Last year the met department in April had forecast an optimistic 96% of long-term average rainfall. But it had to later scale down its rainfall forecast.

All eyes are now on reservoir levels. Data collected in mid-March by the Central Water Commission that monitors the live storage of 81 major reservoirs, shows they had only 32% of total storage capacity, the second lowest since 2006.

“Reservoir levels are definitely worrying because they could have a negative impact. There could again be a tug-of-war like last year between cities and rural areas for drinking water versus irrigation needs,” said an official in the met department’s division for crop-based weather advisories.

Standing crops are feeling the impact of this abnormal weather. India’s wheat production is expected to be lower by 3-5% as yields have dropped in the country’s traditional bread basket - Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh.

“Farmers in these areas sowed wheat late because they had sugarcane and paddy standing in their fields. However, farmers in Madhya Pradesh, parts of Rajasthan, and Bundelkhand are not hit because they cultivated heat-tolerant early sown varieties,” said the official.

The lack of winter rainfall may not affect sowing of kharif crops in June-July. “Monsoon rains are important for building soil moisture as evaporation is low those months. Winter rains and pre-monsoon showers are more critical for building up reservoir levels, which are India’s only fall-back option for irrigation and drinking water,” he said.

Cotton will be the first kharif crop to be sown in April-May. India is the world’s second largest producer and exporter of cotton. “Fortunately, cotton is mostly irrigated. The pre-monsoon showers will only assist in giving strength to the crop. Vegetables and fruits too are grown in mostly irrigated areas. Their yields will be decided by the peak summer temperatures,” the official said.

The scanty rainfall is likely to push farmers into pumping more groundwater to irrigate their crops, especially in northern India, thus further depleting the water table. Much of the water used to irrigate paddy fields is pumped from underground.

- The Economic Times

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