India's 2016 monsoon rains could be below average: forecasters

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Monsoon rains in India, the world’s second-biggest producer of rice and sugar, could be lighter than average this year in the absence of the La Nina weather pattern, two senior officials at the state-run weather department said on Wednesday.

Monsoon clouds gather over Haji Ali mosque during heavy rains in Mumbai June 7, 2008. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe/Files

Rainfall in September could be up to 15 percent less than average, said the officials from the India Meteorological Department (IMD) who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

This year’s below-average rains, after two straight years of drought that had dried up reservoirs and led to social tensions in parts of the country, could cut yields of summer-sown crops that are currently ripening for harvesting and also hit the planting of winter-sown crops like wheat and chickpeas.

As of last Friday Indian farmers had cultivated summer crops on 105 million hectares of land, up 4.2 percent from a year ago, farm ministry data showed. Higher farm output is crucial to cut imports of staples like wheat for the country of 1.3 billion people.

Last month, the IMD forecast above average monsoon rains, crucial for watering nearly half of the country’s farmlands that lack irrigation facilities.

The IMD had forecast surplus rains in August and September, largely because of the La Nina, a weather phenomenon that cools the waters of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America that typically causes stronger monsoons across Asia, said one of the senior IMD officials.

“La Nina didn’t develop. Instead we got lower rains in the second half,” the official said.

Since the start of the monsoon season on June 1, rains have been 5 percent below average.

But D.S. Pai, IMD’s long-range forecast head, said the distribution of rainfall was good this year for crop growth and that more clarity will emerge about final rainfall figures in two weeks.

India’s weather office defines average, or normal, rainfall as between 96 percent and 104 percent of a 50-year average of 89 cm for the entire four-month season. The IMD in August forecast monsoon rains at 106 percent or above normal.

Last week a U.S. government weather forecaster said La Nina conditions were no longer likely to develop. In June the agency said there was a 75 percent chance La Nina would develop.

Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Greg Mahlich