El Niño may lead to rice shortfall

Copyright: Mikkel Ostergaard / Panos

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  • South Asia has been experiencing deficit rainfall attributed to the El Niño phenomenon
  • El Niño conditions could cause a shortfall in South Asian rice production
  • FAO has scaled back global rice production forecast for 2015 by 6.5 million tonnes

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[NEW DELHI] Decreased rainfall and droughts caused by El Niño could hit rice production in South Asia and threaten food security in importing countries in West Africa, according to an Oxfam briefing released this month.
The Oxfam report said the development of El Niño in the second half of the monsoon season could be more powerful than the one in 1997—1998 and that El Niño conditions are likely to continue into 2016. August this year already saw a 23 per cent deficit in rainfall over India, according to the India Meteorological Department, and the IMD says that rainfall could be reduced by up to 90 per cent in a severe El Niño.
The poor populations in the towns and cities of West African countries have a preference for rice because it is easy to prepare and store. However, the production of rice in these countries is low and cannot meet rising consumption levels, which is why, in 2014, West African countries imported 7.73 million tonnes of rice, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
All West African countries taken together import over one-third of their rice from India, though the proportions between the countries vary. Niger imports 13 per cent from India; Gambia and Ivory Coast 20 per cent; and Nigeria 23 per cent. Senegal imports 72 per cent of its rice from India, and Liberia, a colossal 97 per cent. Other quantities come from Pakistan and China.
Indian authorities, however, have told SciDev.Net that there is no cause for concern. “Though El Niño had a significant effect with severe impacts in August and September, which saw 77 per cent rainfall, the government had reacted well to the timely predictions,” says Shivananda Pai, scientist at the IMD office in Pune. “Adequate measures included restricted sowing of water-intensive rice varieties. Besides, the main areas of deficient rainfall were in Karnataka and Maharashtra which are not rice producing states.”

El Niño, a warm water oscillation in the Pacific Ocean, is set to reach its peak this year, causing unusual weather patterns around the world and reductions in monsoon rain over South Asia.
Pramod Aggarwal, director of the South Asia Regional Programme for the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, acknowledging that El Niño affects rice production. But he says that the Indian government has sufficient buffer stocks to ensure that exports are not affected.
Nonetheless, the FAO’s rice market monitor for October has scaled back its forecast for global rice production in 2015 considering “unfavourable climatic conditions, largely associated with the prevalence of the El Niño weather anomaly”. FAO now forecasts world rice paddy production in 2015 to be around 742.6 million tonnes — that is 6.5 million tonnes less than estimated in July.
This article was produced by SciDev.Net’s South Asia desk.