The ongoing onion crisis, according to expert observations, seems to be a spillover effect of global warming.
Amid the hullabaloo about the onion price spike and the blame game that failed to affect as usual the pattern of profiteering courtesy of the hoarders, we overlooked a simple fact that the crisis, this time, sprang out of the trans-border trade affected by crop failure. In fact, kitchens across the whole south Asia – from Kathmandu to Colombo – are in tears because of an acute shortfall of this produce.
Over the last one week, when Bangladesh was airlifting this humble, innocent-looking bulbous root vegetable in hoards from faraway countries like Egypt and Turkey, our next-door neighbour India, the biggest exporter of onion, was also preparing a sizable 1,00,000-tonne import – a move the country hasn't seen in years.
A close look reveals that erratic rainfall during the monsoon – an obvious fallout of global warming – is to be blamed for this terrible impact on our kitchens across the region. A disruption in the weather pattern has triggered this crisis first in India and then, to a lesser degree, in Bangladesh. The disruption in production was then aggravated, no doubt, by greedy hoarders.
On September 29, India banned onion exports to check a nationwide uproar over a shortfall in supply, sending ripples in the markets of neighbouring Bangladesh, which relies heavily on Indian onions to balance its nearly one million tonnes of shortage in yearly supply.
Even before this unprecedented shooting up of prices in Dhaka, the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on her high-profile Delhi visit a week after India suddenly announced a suspension on export, raised the issue during a press briefing. Though disguised in her typical 'casual' manner, she also mentioned that she was shunning onion from her daily menu after such debacle.
Now, what caused this shortfall in Indian onion production?
According to reports in Indian newspapers, the production was damaged hugely first by drought and then by excessive rainfall. These extreme weather conditions ravaged farming lands in the states of Maharashtra, Gujrat, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh that are considered the powerhouse of onion.
Indian farming and harvest of onions are sprawled across three seasons: onions sown in October and November are harvested in April. Another crop is planted in May and July, and is harvested in October and December. A third crop is sown in August and September and harvested in January and March.
A devastating drought slashed the April harvest.
In the state of Maharashtra, which accounts for a third of India's total onion production, heat and scarcity of rain led farmers to plant 15 to 20 per cent less than the year before.
India's monsoon also affected the crop planted between May and July. The monsoon normally starts in June and ends by September. This year, it arrived late. In June, India had a total rainfall of around 33 per cent, below its 50-year average.
Monsoon usually recedes by the beginning of September. But this year it lingered through the month. When it did come, the monsoon also brought the heaviest rainfall in 25 years, according to India's Meteorological Department.
The shifting of monsoon and the disruption in the patterns of rainfall took a toll on onion production. Meteorologists attribute this disruption to the rise in sea water.
Dr Syed Humayun Akhter, a geologist at the University of Dhaka, said that global warming has direct link with the pattern of rainfall and formation of cyclonic storms in the Bay of Bengal. The rise in sea water temperature of the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal is contributing to extra amount of vapour. This causes excessive rainfall during the monsoon period. Moreover, patterns of wind circulation and ocean currents are also disrupted.
Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that the average global sea surface temperature – the temperature of the upper few metres of the ocean – has increased by approximately 0.13°C per decade over the past 100 years. A 2012 paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters revealed that the deep ocean all over the world is also affected, with one third of the excess heat absorbed 700 metres below the sea surface.
Dr Kawser Ahmed, professor of Oceanography, University of Dhaka, explained, there are two cycles of monsoon in a calendar year. The South West monsoon originates from the Tibetan plateau and approaches from south-west direction. It crosses the Arab Sea, traverses the Indian peninsula and enters Bangladesh territory during the first week of June. It causes heavy rainfall because of the vapour and cloud it carries.
Bangladesh saw a late arrival of monsoon this year. According to Omar Faruk, a meteorologist of Storm Warning Centre, June saw 11,776 ml or 37 per cent less rain this year against the average expected rainfall of 18,908 ml. While in July the country experienced 26,858 ml of rainfall, a 25 per cent rise from the average. This clearly shows the shifting of monsoon by almost a month.
Dr Kawser Ahmed said that the agrarian practices in this area are timed with the onset and retreat of this regular weather event. But as sea temperature is clearly on the rise, we are experiencing a shift in the pattern and intensity of rainfall. There also is an observable change in the pattern of seasons, which is affecting agricultural production.
Dumuria, an area famous for growing vegetables in the southern part of the country had only 75 ml rainfall this year, against 325 ml the previous year. Mosaddek Hossain, upazila agriculture officer of Dumuria, said that the usual sowing season, June, was extremely dry this year, making the paddy fields wait longer for harvest, which, in turn, pushed the time of onion sowing further behind. Thus, the harvesting of this intermediary crop got delayed.
Moreover, the excessive rainfall brought dual spells of floods in northern and central parts of the country.
This shifting pattern of rainfall has forced farmers to delay onion planting.
Pabna, a power house of onion production, accounts for one fourth of the total 1.9 million tonnes produced in the country. Sujanagar, Sathia and Bera are the three upazilas that lead the production.
Masum Billah, the upazila agriculture officer of Pabna sadar, said that his area also saw a delay in sowing of onions due to the shift in the timing of rainfall. The adjacent area of Sujanagar also faced the same disruption. According to Mainul Islam Sarker, its agricultural officer, Mulkata, a local breed of onion is usually planted in mid-September and it takes 60-70 days to harvest. This year the flooding of the char fields caused delay in onion cultivation which eventually caused a two-week delay in the harvest.
In Sujanagar, the weekly bazars have had its first supply of local onions last Sunday. According to local agricultural officers, the main supply of Mulkata onion has just begun to hit the market. This will make the price come down a bit.
But the country will have to wait till March to witness complete normalisation of the market because the main breed of onion, the dry onion, as it is popularly referred to, will be harvested by then. Its sowing will begin in December. But if there is untimely rainfall during winter, another disaster will ensue.