By Samantha Molineaux-Graham
Last week’s torrential rains and mudslides in Sri Lanka brought into sharp focus the potential for catastrophe that unpredictable weather can have on the region’s tea industry.
Until recently, Sri Lanka commanded the highest price for tea exports than any other country in the world but saw the dollar value of its tea exports decrease by 12% from January 2015 to January 2016.
The tea industry employs 1 million of its 20.6 million population and has enjoyed a relatively stable volume output.
In contrast, prolonged dry weather in northeastern India caused heavy production loss to that region’s tea industry, with yields down 40% in April and down 15% in the first half of May, according to a recent report in the Indian daily The Economic Times. Total output for the country rose marginally to 1.213 million kilos last year.
Sub Himalayan West Bengal, which encompasses the Darjeeling tea region, has experienced a 9% lower than average cumulative rainfall since March 1. While nationwide rainfall levels for the week beginning May 4 bounced back to favorable levels, in sub Himalayan West Bengal, rainfall levels dropped to 30% of the average for that week, according to the report.
It is no secret that changes in the annual monsoon season and other effects of climate change are real threats to tea yields in this part of the world, but subtle shifts in seasonal weather patterns such as are currently being experienced in the Darjeeling (and Nepali) tea regions also have the potential to cause serious damage to local economies that rely on the quality of the crop and healthy yields. In addition, low rainfall impacts irrigation and pest management costs in the region, further increasing production costs. K. K. Mintry, Chairman of North Bengal’s Terai India Planters Association, reported in the article that the price realization for auctioned tea has decreased by about 5 or 6 rupees per kilogram compared to the same time period last year.
Nepal’s National Tea and Coffee Development Board, in an article published in The Kathmandu Post last week, projected a sharp drop in orthodox tea production in Nepal due to the recent dry spell, which has directly affected the important first flush of the tea harvest. “Reduced output could affect export prices,” said Himalayan Tea Producers’ Association president Som Prasad Gauchan in the article.
Researchers from Tufts University recently published results of a study into the correlation between the onset, duration, and retreat East Asian Monsoon and tea yields in the region, suggesting that the heavier rainfalls that are reducing tea yield and quality need to be addressed by changes in soil management techniques and development of tea varietals that are more tolerant of this increased precipitation
Less visible impacts on the West Bengal region’s tea industry include record amounts of tea going from India to Pakistan (up 60% in the first 10 months of the current fiscal year due to lower domestic production in Pakistan) and a surge of orthodox tea transported from Nepal that does not appear in the official statistics because only CTC tea is registered.
Tea production in India has been basically flat the past few years while domestic demand soars, pinching the amount of tea available for export.