Climate Crisis

India has had its driest August since 1901. Here’s why that matters

Agriculture plays a pivotal role in India’s $3.75 trillion economy.

Agriculture plays a pivotal role in India’s $3.75 trillion economy. Image: Unsplash/Charlie Costello

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • India’s August Monsoon rainfall was 40% lower in 2023.
  • Which is bad news for those whose food supplies depend on the world’s biggest rice exporter.
  • But AI-driven smart farming could save crops even in the most extreme conditions, according to analysis by the World Economic Forum.

India has just endured its driest August for over 120 years, with Monsoon rainfall much lower than usual, sparking fears that food supplies will be adversely affected.

Rainfall during the month was almost 40% below average, with overall summer rains 10% lower than normal since the Monsoon season began on 1 June, Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, director-general of the India Meteorological Department, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

Meteorologists have blamed the dry August on the El Niño phenomenon shown to affect weather patterns around the globe. Caused by warming in the Pacific Ocean, El Niño diverts the flow of rain-bearing clouds away from India.

India is the world’s biggest rice exporter
India is the world’s biggest rice exporter Image: Unsplash/Nandhu Kumar

Although the Indian Meteorological Department expects rainfall levels to recover later in 2023, resulting in close to average amounts for the year as a whole, the last time El Nino disrupted the Monsoon in 2015, the country suffered widespread drought.

The term Monsoon refers to winds that traditionally bring heavy summer rainfall to India. Scientists told India’s Economic Times that climate change has made monsoons more erratic and volatile, leading to frequent landslides and flash floods in the country’s Himalayan north.

Extreme weather year

India has experienced a series of extreme weather events in 2023. February was officially declared the hottest month since records began in 1901, while in June, Cyclone Biparjoy became the longest-duration cyclonic storm in the northern Indian Ocean since 1977.

Extreme weather events in India can have serious impacts on global food supplies. India is the world’s biggest rice exporter and Reuters reported that the country had already had limited shipments over fears the dry summer might hit crop yields.

It’s a move that will affect not just food security but also drive up global food prices, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). India accounts for 40% of global rice trade exporting 22 million tonnes worth $9.66bn to 140 countries.

Forty-two countries in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa get more than half their rice imports from India although, in Africa, India’s market share in 2022 exceeded 80% for several countries, according to IFPRI data.

To conserve food supplies for the home market, India has also imposed a 40% tax on onion exports but is waiving import duties on pulses, Reuters reported.

Data released in mid-August showed retail inflation rising to 7.44% from 4.875% the previous month, according to Reuters. Food inflation hit over 11.5%, its highest level since 2020 and Reuters reported that the government was considering banning sugar exports.

Tech-driven solution

Agriculture plays a pivotal role in India’s $3.75 trillion economy, with 58% of rural households depending on farming for their livelihoods, according to the World Economic Forum’s Artificial Intelligence for Agricultural Innovation report.

Discover

How is the World Economic Forum helping farmers with technology?

Water is a precious resource in rural India.
Water is a precious resource in rural India. Image: Unsplash/Gyan Shahane

More than half of all cultivated land in India depends on Monsoon rains but the report says that better data collection and using AI technology to analyze it could help overcome the worst effects of events like August’s low rainfall.

By combining weather forecasts and historic rainfall data with regular soil analysis the technology enables smart farming that gives farmers the information they need to plant and harvest crops at the most effective time.

AI weather analysis can also be used to create micro forecasts, allowing farmers to plan for expected droughts by conserving water. A pilot project testing the technology saved 25,796 hectares of groundnut crops in Andhra Pradesh, the report notes.

In another example cited in the report, crop yields increased by 17%, farm incomes rose by 25% and pest control improved while reducing the use of harmful pesticides – all as a result of collecting data effectively and analyzing it using AI.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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