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[COLOMBO] South Asian countries need to react faster to weather forecasts and prepare better for increasingly erratic monsoon rains in order to maintain the region’s agricultural production and meet energy needs, experts say.

“In spite of the availability of pre-monsoon forecast products, these countries often have seen slower reactions to this set of information and not certainly at a pace required to save livelihoods, assets and life,” says Atiq Kainan Ahmed, early warning systems specialist at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre, Thailand.

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) forecasts that the onset of the monsoon over the sub-continent would begin on 30 May, give or take four days, and that the quantity of rainfall would be 93 per cent of the long-term average.

The monsoon rains would bring relief to heat wave conditions prevailing over India that have claimed 700 lives over the past week. IMD director B.P. Yadav says temperatures have reached 47 degrees Celsius in parts of India as a result of hot winds blowing in from Pakistan’s Sindh province.

India has limited adaptive capacity to heat waves and the impacts can be severe in the future, warns a paper published last month (April) in Regional Environmental Change.

Ahmed attributes the poor response to warnings of extreme and anomalous weather to a combination of factors, including lack of awareness and low preparedness.

In the last two years the monsoon fluctuated widely with above-average rains in 2013 and below-average rains last year. This year the predictions are for below-average rains attributed by the region’s meteorological offices to the El Nino phenomenon.

“Below-normal rainfall is likely over broad areas of western, central and southwestern South Asia and some areas in the northeastern-most parts of the region,” the South Asian Climate Outlook Forum said in a statement following its annual forum on 15—22 April in Dhaka.

“Latest forecasts indicate a 70 per cent probability for El Niño conditions to persist until the southwest monsoon season. There is also a possibility for El Niño conditions to strengthen further during the later part of the monsoon season. El Niño conditions are known typically to weaken the South Asian southwest monsoon circulation and adversely impact rainfall over the region.”

Last year, Sri Lanka lost 25 per cent of the rice harvest after farmers ignored advice to reduce crop extent or resort to alternate crops that demand less water. “We need to be assertive with follow-up action,” L. Chandrapala, director-general of Sri Lanka’s meteorological department, says. 

Reduced monsoon rainfall may slightly help millions affected by the earthquake in Nepal. “It does not make matters any better that the monsoon could be less intense, because the rains will last between June and September and millions are out there in the open without proper shelter or other facilities — constant rains is the last thing they want,” says Rupa Joshi, communications manager, UNICEF-Nepal.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.