Tea-growing regions in Assam, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh are suffering staggering losses due to flooding that has killed at least 1,200 people among the 16 million displaced in Southeast Asia.
Two weeks of incessant rainfall has turned the Brahmaputra River basin into a quagmire with millions of tea bushes underwater. As of Aug. 30, West Bengal reported 152 fatalities with 270,000 people displaced in 14 districts, many almost exclusively cultivating tea. Damage is estimated at INRs14,000 crore ($2 billion). The death count in Bihar, bordering Nepal, is more than 500 with another 134 perishing in Bangladesh.
Relief officials said the situation this year was especially bad, with thousands of villages cut off and millions forced to survive with limited food or clean water, according to The Calcutta Telegraph.
Tea production is unlikely to exceed that of 2016 in the region given the combination of a long-running strike in Darjeeling that halted the harvest in June and the unusually heavy rains. Production declined 3 percent in June, with the north reporting a 5 percent decline prior to the strike, now approaching three months. Output in Darjeeling plunged 89 percent in June and the harvest was abandoned in July and August.
Production in Assam, the largest growing region in the world, is expected to fall 10 percent, according to the Tea Board of India. Exports are nonetheless expected to rise.
“Demand for Indian tea in global markets has risen, with Kenya and Sri Lanka, the major exporters of bulk tea, witnessing erratic cropping patterns this year,” according to a report put out by ICRA, a financial rating service founded in 1991.
The Hindu Business Line reported that while India exports only around 20 percent of the tea produced domestically, it plays an important role in maintaining the balance between demand and supply and price levels. “With the kind of shortage in Kenya, we expect exports of Indian tea to be better this year. This in turn will help improve prices,” said Jagjeet Kandal, Managing Director, Amalgamated Plantations.
The overall global production trend is unlikely to witness the same trajectory as last year when the combined production of India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka grew by 3.5 percent. Tea production in India rose 2.5 percent that year but the Sri Lankan crop declined 11 percent. Kenya experienced a bountiful year but 2017 has been dry in Kenya and totals are expected to decline.
Decline Amid Plenty
By Pullock Dutta
During the past century, rainfall has declined more than 220 mm annually in the tea-rich upper Assam districts. This is sounding an alarm bell for the tea industry in India.
Assam produces more than half of the nearly 1,200 million kilos of tea grown in India. Abundant and well distributed rainfall is an essential factor for the commercial viability and sustainability of tea.
A study at Tocklai Tea Research Institute, the world’s oldest tea research station, reports a substantial decrease of rainfall in the last 98 years on the south bank of the Brahmaputra river in Golaghat, Jorhat, Sivasagar, Charades, and Karlbi Anglong. Annual variations are severe enough to result in floods or drought.
The study was part of the report of the Working Group on Climate Change which was submitted at the inter-sessional meeting of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation’s Inter-governmental Group on Tea at Colombo, Sri Lanka on August 12-13.
Researchers found that a few tea gardens, that had favorable temperature requirements for growth; shifted to the higher temperature zones when compared to the current scenario. Gardens that appeared to be vulnerable needed to be identified and schooled in proper adaptation strategies to cushion the impacts of the growth of tea. The main report was submitted by India with contributions from China, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.
The FAO IGG on Tea is a forum for consultation and the exchange of research on trends in the production, consumption, trade, and price of tea.
“The monthly total rainfall data of the last 30 years when compared with the long-term normal rain during the tea growing season shows that each month has a deficit of rainfall, which is detrimental for tea production in the long run,” the report states. More troubling is the frequency of extreme rainfall, which has increased in the past 30 years.
Adequate rainfall during winter and early spring is crucial for high yield, according to the authors at the Tocklai Tea Research Institute. The study revealed there was almost no rainfall between October and March during the last three years and that rainfall is now concentrated during the period from June to September.
Rainfall totals during the March and April flush are declining.
In 2014, the region received a rainfall of 1,489.8mm which is 290.2mm below normal, whereas in 2015, rainfall was recorded at 22.9mm above the long-term normal rainfall (1,802.9mm). The distribution was also uneven.
The working group of B. Bera of Tea Board of India, A.K. Barooah of Tocklai and M. Wijeratne of the Tea Research Institute Sri Lanka will continue to collect data and analyze the climatic variables in different agro-climatic regions, assess the degree of vulnerability of tea plantations to climate change, study pest and disease dynamics under varying climatic conditions, and investigate impacts of climate change on tea quality. It will also continue to work on identification of regional specific and socio-economically feasible adaptation strategies such as rainwater harvesting, irrigation and conduct awareness programs on climate change.