A silver lining

Print edition : November 19, 2010

Harvesting paddy at Singrijan, on the outskirts of Dimapur in Nagaland, on October 21.-AFP

Agrometeorological services go a long way in enhancing production through timely weather forecasts and other farmer-friendly initiatives.

INDIAN agriculture has, for centuries, been solely dependent on the weather, in particular the vagaries of the monsoon. Uncertainties of the weather pose a major threat to food security of the country. Extreme weather conditions such as heavy rain, cyclone, hail storm, heat wave, cold wave and frost cause considerable crop loss every year.

The Green Revolution notwithstanding, one thing that the Indian government has concentrated on is immediate weather forecasting mechanisms that help prevent too much damage to crops. Since the majority of the agricultural lands in the country is not under institutionalised irrigation, they will benefit from the efficient use of agro-climatic resources, besides soil and water, which will also minimise the adverse effects of extreme weather. Weather services provide a very special kind of input to the farmer as advisories that can make a big difference to agricultural production.

Agriculture is the largest employer in the country, besides being an important contributor to the gross domestic product. In order to optimise the use of natural resources for increasing crop production, the government has started an agricultural forecasting system known as the Agrometeorological Advisory Service (AAS). The service is rendered by the India Meteorological Department (IMD) under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES). In view of the high degree of weather variability, it has become important for farmers to have climate information with seasonal forecasts before the start of the cropping season. Short- and medium-range weather forecast on the basis of the agrometeorological (agromet) advisories are vital to stabilise yields through management of agro-climatic resources as well as other agricultural inputs such as irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides.

In a paddy field near Palakkad, Kerala. It has become important for farmers to have climate information with seasonal forecasts before the start of the cropping season.-K.K. MUSTAFAH

The agromet service contributes to crop/livestock management strategies and operations dedicated to enhancing crop production and food security. The emphasis of the AAS system is to collect and organise information on soil and crops and amalgamate them with weather forecasts.

In India, the agro-advisories are given to farmers at the scale of agro-climatic zone on the basis of quantitative medium-range weather forecast. There are 127 agro-climatic zones. The economic value of the agromet information, which is in the form of advisories, is evaluated in terms of its impact in saving farm inputs, increasing crop yield and bringing economic benefits to the farming community.

THE AGROMET WEATHER forecasting laboratory at the India Meteorological Department in New Delhi.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The IMD, in collaboration with organisations such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Ministry of Agriculture (both at the Centre and in the State), and State Agricultural Universities (SAUs), issues AAS bulletins twice a week. It also promotes cooperation between national agrometeorological institutions and those involved in the transfer of agromet information and advisories. Besides setting up an agromet observation network, the IMD has developed numerical weather prediction methods, including multimodel ensemble (MME), to prepare district-specific weather forecasts for five days in quantitative terms.

It has also set up a network of 130 agrometeorological field units (AMFUs), which translate weather forecasts into agro-advisories. These units are based at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), SAUs, the ICAR institutes and other organisations working in the sphere of agricultural sciences. They prepare district-wise advisories.

A multimedia approach has been adopted to disseminate the advisories, involving conventional modes of communication and emerging modes such as mobile phones and the Internet. Messages are also sent by SMS (short messaging service) and voice mode to farmers who subscribe to services offered by private companies such as Reuters Market Light, IFFCO Kisan Sanchar Limited, MahaAgri, Handygo, and Vritti Solutions at present.

DR L.S. RATHORE, head of the Agricultural Meteorology Division and Additional Director-General of Meteorology.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Meteorological processes

To meet the farmers' needs in real time and to have an AAS at the district level (612 of them), the Integrated Agromet Advisory Service was launched in April 2007. It involved the ICAR, the Ministry of Agriculture (at the Centre & in the States), the SAUs and other agencies.

In June 2008, the IMD started issuing quantitative district-level forecasts five days ahead of a weather event. The parameters include rainfall, temperature, wind speed and direction, relative humidity and cloudiness. In addition, a weekly cumulative rainfall forecast is also provided. The IMD, New Delhi, generates the data by applying the MME technique on forecast products available from models in India and abroad. These include the T-254 model of the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF); the T-799 model of the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF); the United Kingdom Met Office (UKMO); the National Centres for Environmental Prediction (NCEP), United States; and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA).

FARMERS ATTENDING an awareness programme in Roorkee, Uttarakhand.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The products are disseminated to regional meteorological centres and meteorological centres of the IMD in different States. These offices add value to the products and communicate to the AMFUs. The Agricultural Meteorology Division set up in Pune in 1932 under the IMD provides direct services to farmers to minimise the impact of adverse weather on crops and to boost agricultural production during favourable weather.

The advisories are for sowing/transplanting of crops, fertilizer application, predictions regarding pests and diseases and measures to control them, intercultural operations, weeding/thinning, irrigation (quantum and timing), and harvest of crops. Farmers who used the agromet information made a net gain of around 10 per cent.

AAS bulletins

THE HIGH-POWER COMPUTING System at IMD, New Delhi. This gives more accurate weather forecasts.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

While district-level AAS (DAAS) bulletins are issued for the farmers' benefit, State-level composite bulletins are meant for the planners such as the State Crop Weather Watch Group (CWWG) and other users such as the fertilizer industry, the pesticides industry, the Irrigation Department, the seed corporations, the transport department and organisations that provide inputs to agriculture. There is also the national AAS bulletin, which is primarily targeted at national-level planners such as the CWWG, the Department of Agriculture & Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, New Delhi, and all related Ministries (State and Central) and organisations, including non-governmental ones.

The agencies that circulate the AAS bulletins at various levels are:

National-level by the Agromet Advisory Service Centre, Agromet Division, IMD, Pune.

State-levels by State Agromet Service Centre at Regional Meteorological Centre/IMD Meteorological Centre (23)

District-level by the AMFUs.

THE IMD HEADQUARTERS, Mausam Bhawan, in New Delhi.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The main features in the AAS bulletin are: (i) significant past weather; (ii) quantitative weather forecast for the next five days; and (iii) advisories for the farming community. District-specific, medium-term forecast information and advisories help maximise output and avert crop damage or loss. They also help growers anticipate and plan for chemical applications, irrigation scheduling, disease and pest outbreaks, and many more weather-related, agriculture-specific operations. Such operations include cultivar selection, dates of sowing/planting/transplanting, dates of intercultural operations, dates of harvesting and also post-harvest activities.

The AAS helps increase profits by consistently delivering actionable weather information, analysis and decision support for farming situations such as pest management (through forecast on relative humidity, temperature and wind), irrigation management (through rainfall and temperature forecasts); protection of crops from thermal stress (through forecasts about extreme temperature conditions).

Information dissemination: Information is disseminated through multiple modes of delivery, including All India Radio, television, print media (newspapers in different languages), the Internet (Web pages), e-mail, telephone and so on. The use of e-mail and the Internet is picking up as the number of farmers accessing these modes is increasing steadily. The AAS bulletins contain dynamic information, hence there is repetitive dissemination. Critical factors for dissemination include relevance of information to weather and climate-sensitive decision-making in agriculture, followed by good outreach.

The bulletins are encoded in a format and language that are easy for the farmer to comprehend. The agrometeorologists first interpret the immediate past weather and the forecast for the next five days. They then translate the analysed information into layman's terms.

Thus, agrometeorologists play a vital role in the encoding and decoding of messages from meteorologists meant for farmers. The service also promotes interaction between the AMFUs and farmers to identify weather-sensitive decisions. This enables the establishment of a relationship between the IMD, the AMFUs and farmers so that they can identify or diagnose any gaps in the weather information available from the IMD.

The district-level bulletins have crop-specific advisories, including those on field crops, horticultural crops and livestock. At present, these bulletins are issued for 539 districts.

The State-level bulletin is a composite of district bulletins and helps identify distressed districts in a State. These bulletins are prepared jointly by the State Meteorological Centre of the IMD and the AMFUs and are used mainly by State government functionaries. This bulletin is a significant input to the State-level CWWG. At present, these bulletins are issued to all States.

The national-level bulletin helps identify stress on various crops in different regions and suitably incorporates the advisories. The Ministry of Agriculture is the prime user of these bulletins.

Major activities

The major activities of the Agricultural Meteorology Division are: technical assistance, research and development, services, and human resource development. Additional Director-General of Meteorology L.S. Rathore, who is also the head of the division, said: Assessing the impact of weather forecast application in the farm management sector is a stupendous task. The task becomes even more challenging if one attempts to quantify the value of weather-forecast-based agro-advisories. In order to judge the worthiness and role of the service in farm management, its economic impact was assessed through extensive surveys.

Survey: Since it was difficult to consider all crop and all agro-climatic situations, the study was undertaken at 15 representative sites and covered principal crops. The study, carried out between 2003-07, covered three kharif (monsoon) and three rabi (winter) crop seasons. The National Centre for Agriculture Economics and Policy Research (NCAP), which was engaged as a consultant for the project, helped formulate the study plan, devise the sampling method and monitor its implementation and data analysis.

SURFACE METEOROLOGICAL TOWER at IMD, New Delhi.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The case studies include estimates for both perfect and imperfect forecasts. From a practical perspective, perfect forecasts are an unrealistic expectation. However, even less accurate forecasts help farmers to devise farm management action. Also, reporting a range of advisories that are based on weather forecasts with lower skill levels is also helpful in determining the degree of accuracy needed to further improve the service.

Most of the economic evaluations of weather forecast-based advisories presented in the report are based on a comparison of information obtained from users and non-users and recorded at the individual farm level, on a per hectare basis. The majority of the study events are based on the skill of forecasts, particularly on precipitation, temperature, cloudiness and winds, which have a significant bearing in numerous farm-level decision-making strategies.

Impact assessment

The impact assessment framework deals with estimating the direct impact of the AAS on the cost of cultivation, gross net returns and yield. Crops selected included cereals, millets, oilseeds, cash crops, fruits and vegetables. The assessment indicates that weather-based advisories have a positive impact on overall yield and also help in decreasing the cost of cultivation.

The overall analysis in terms of percentage of increase in yield and total input cost was that the AAS farmers were able to reduce the cost of cultivation by 2-5 per cent except in the case of fruits, where the cost of cultivation increased by 5-10 per cent. This showed that the selection of the right kind of fertilizers and seeds through awareness programmes organised in villages and the spraying of appropriate pesticides on account of the advisory saved input costs. It was also observed that the yield increased by almost 10-25 per cent in most of the crops.

The maximum increase was in fruit crops. Timely field operations on account of the adoption of the agromet advisories twice a week helped in improving the yields of various crops. Besides obtaining economic gains to those who adopted the various strategies to mitigate weather-induced losses, the project also helped in creating a comprehensive knowledge base on various aspects of the prevalent weather and climatic conditions in the study zone vis-a-vis crop/soil management.

Sampling

The sampling method to finalise a model of the bulletin was designed to work directly with the users of forecast and advisory information, to be able to assess more meaningfully credible cost/loss estimates. The important issue was to develop an effective and meaningful base for assessing impacts of cost-cutting yield and enhancing decisions. Cost-cutting measures can take a variety of forms, some of which include saving in irrigation, reducing loss of fertilizer, and reducing pesticide application.

To obtain quantitative information, working relationships between the AMFUs and user-farmers were set up through periodic visits. During these visits, inputs were obtained from the farmers through a pre-devised questionnaire about the use and application of advisory bulletins.

The AAS units gave special attention to the date of sowing, planting, harvesting, spraying, irrigation and tillage operation. Due attention was paid to collecting information on the adoption of advisories by the farmers during such operations and on the benefit/loss that accrued to them by following/not following advisories related to such crucial operations.

MEASURING SURFACE TEMPERATURE and wind speed and determining wind direction with a Stevenson screen, wind vane and anemometer at IMD, New Delhi.-SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Care was taken to isolate the economic impact of weather-based advisories on different crops cultivated by weather-sensitive users. Though the sampling method was devised to determine the direct and indirect impacts of weather-related costs and losses for the representative sample of users, there is ample scope for not catching holistic impacts. Considering the complexity of the situation, one can understand the difficulty in estimating and quantifying the user response. Nevertheless, survey results do provide credible information about the value of forecast-cum-advisory products.

While the study was designed and conducted in the most impartial way, yet there is a possibility that some unexpected/unavoidable bias might have percolated into it.

So the survey includes surveyor bias, sampling bias, problem in isolating mutually exclusive set of AAS and non-AAS farmers regarding their awareness about weather-based agro-advisories, partial incorrect information collected during survey, wilful concealing of information about the actual benefits accrued to the farmer, misinformation regarding the losses suffered on account of weather and for want of funds from the government.

DAAS

The DAAS is a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional project. It is being implemented through a multi-tier structure that includes meteorological (weather observation and forecasting), agricultural (identifying weather sensitive stress and preparing suitable advisory using weather forecast), extension (two-way communication with user) and information dissemination (media, information technology and telecommunication) agencies. The critical components of DAAS system are discussed below.

Weather Forecasting System: In the recent past, the IMD has made enormous improvement in the accuracy and lead time of forecasts for various purposes, including AAS, owing to the introduction of advanced numerical weather prediction models, improved data (both conventional and non-conventional) and its assimilation and high-speed computers. This trend is expected to continue as more sophisticated numerical models of the atmosphere and oceans are developed.

Results show that MME forecasts have the better capability (compared with member models) to capture large-scale rainfall features of summer monsoon, such as heavy rainfall belt along the West Coast, over the domain of the monsoon trough and on the foothills of the Himalayas. Results of error statistics have demonstrated clearly the superiority of the MME over the member models. Among the member models, the ECMWF is found to be the best, followed by the JMA and the NCEP's Global Forecast System. The forecasts for other parameters namely, maximum and minimum temperature and morning and evening relative humidity have also shown reasonably good skill.

The results of the district-level performance of the ensemble rainfall forecast show that the technique, in general, is capable of providing reasonably good forecast skill over most States of the country, particularly over the districts of the central zone where the monsoon systems are dominant.

A FARMER MAKING a call to a dedicated agricultural call centre for weather-related information from his vineyard at Naitale village in Nashik district of Maharashtra on August 5.-INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

The installation and commissioning of a network of 55 Doppler Weather Radar is in progress. Techniques have been developed to assimilate large volume of satellite-derived information from satellite INSAT-3D. There is a plan to use the GIS in the near future to generate customised agrometeorological products. Value addition to the numerical weather prediction (NWP) model output is undertaken along with the preparation of a district-level weather forecast at the meteorological centres in various States, which are responsible for issuing the final forecast to the AMFUs. These centres run the Weather Research and Forecasting (WRF) model using initial conditions generated from the global model for a detailed analysis of rain-bearing systems at higher resolution. A mechanism has been developed to obtain feedback from farmers on the quality of the weather forecast, the relevance and content of the agromet advisory and the effectiveness of the information dissemination system. The dissemination mechanism is being scaled up to communicate advisories/information at the block and panchayat (village) levels in a timely manner through a multichannel dissemination system. The SMS service covers more than 2.45 lakh users spread across 13 States, while Interactive Voice Response (IVR) covers around 30,000 farmers in five States.

The Department of Information Technology (DIT) of the Government of India is establishing State Wide Area Networks (SWANs) connecting each State/Union Territory headquarters to the block level and common service centres (CSCs), one in every six villages, across rural India. The CSCs are an effective additional channel of farm communication. The national e-Governance Plan of the DIT is facilitating the establishment of over one lakh CSCs in six lakh villages. As of November 2009, the number of CSCs rolled out in 25 States is 57,599. The CSCs are ICT-enabled kiosks having personal computers and basic support equipment such as printers and scanners. The scheme is being implemented through public-private partnership. Both the IMD and the DIT are working to develop a suitable mechanism to augment the agromet extension services by synergising with the CSCs through the following proposed interventions:

Providing meteorological information (observation, forecast and products such as agromet advisories) to rural farmers in villages, on the basis of districts and agro-climatic zones;

Linking meteorological information with agricultural-productivity measures;

Weather warnings to minimise disaster losses;

Establishing a two-way communication linkage through the CSCs so that agricultural-related queries can be attended to;

Developing a mechanism to obtain regular feedback on forecast and quality and relevance of advisories, help in problem-solving through interactive mode, answering questions of common interest through bulletins, and gaining access to information/experts via ICT;

Letting the CSCs communicate local-level observations (meteorological, crop, soil, pest/disease, sowing, harvesting and other prevailing intercultural operations) to the knowledge pool for generating relevant and specific advisories; and

Training for kiosk operators and farmers on use of the advisories in farm management through the AMFUs with active support from the IMD/ICAR.

As adequate technological tools are required to translate weather information into agro-management decisions, crop-soil simulation models are employed to predict crop-level responses to different weather situations. A crop model-based decision support system is particularly useful to develop information to aid in weather-based irrigation management.

At the decision-making level, the tactic may be defined as a series of short-term decisions made on the basis of knowledge or forecast of soil moisture, of the plant and of climatic conditions.

In such a case, it is important that the farmer is able to anticipate the evolution of the function indicators of the soil and the plant in order to simulate their effects on plant development and yield.

Much of this modelling work has focussed on understanding the interaction between the various factors influencing crop growth and development, such as water and nutrient supply, biotic stresses and the time of planting and harvesting of the crop in relation to the prevailing environment. Whole-farm approach can help scientists in suggesting crop management options and choosing related farm technologies. One can safely say that the agromet services help prevent crop losses for the vast majority of farmers. In an age where debt-ridden farmers commit suicide, such scientific services will help revive the ailing agricultural sector.

While the MoES may collaborate with private consultancy companies to provide farmers easier access to weather information, its immediate plans are to provide automated bulletins on phone and empower the kisan call centres to help farmers. Right now, the agromet services can be accessed up to the district level; the Ministry plans to make it available at the block level in six months.

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