The pot is boiling
Climate change is showing its adverse effects on Assam’s tea production. Research indicates it will only get worse
Certain places get identified with certain things. When it comes to Assam, it is certainly Assam tea, known worldwide for its strong colour and taste.
The north-eastern State produces more than half of India’s tea production, thus earning for the country’s considerable amount of revenue from its export. The State alone contributes 17 per cent to the global tea production.
However, it looks like not for too long Assam’s love affair with tea will continue the same way. Recent research indicates that tea yields in not just Assam but the entire Northeast are expected to decline by up to 40 per cent by 2050. And this has directly to do with climate change in the region.
In fact, the impact of changes in temperature and rainfall pattern is already showing in Assam’s tea production. The September 2015 crop was down by 0.87 million kg compared to 2014. Since yield is directly associated with revenue generation, the changing climate is likely to impact the economic structures of those reliant on tea, particularly the small growers, given their increased vulnerability to changes in the system.
Researchers and tea cultivators of the State are increasingly pointing at rising temperatures, increase of dry periods and altering precipitation patterns.
Rainfall levels are of central importance to tea quality and production. In climate change zones, the effects of season on tea quality includes lowering of total methylxanthine and catechin concentrations during the monsoon tea harvest when leaf growth is higher compared to the dry spring harvest, resulting in dryness and reduction in the thickness of the leaves.
Senior scientist and deputy director of Tocklai Tea Institute of Assam, R.N. Bhagat, apprises this writer of the alarming situation, “In Assam, we have lost around 22.1 cm of precipitation. With this decline and a movement in precipitation appropriation, the tea business is losing the first flush that comes in March-April. Showering of manures is timed with the precipitation design. However, with no downpour, the composts have no effect."
Bhagat’s worries are reflected in conversations with tea cultivators. "Erratic rainfall and long dry spell are the main problems we are facing these days,” says Rajvinder Singh,the manager of Duklingia Tea Estate in Upper Assam’s Mariani. He says the long dry spell specially makes the tea bushes prone to pests.
In fact, tea experts at Tocklai says that, they are increasingly coming across new species of pest in tea leaves which is affecting production in the State. Last month, while addressing a workshop organised by the Centre for Environment Education titled, “Adaptation to Climate Change in the Indian Himalayas”,Tocklai Tea Research Institute executive N. Muraleedharan said that intrusion of sucking pests, particularly the white fly, had expanded in tea plants due to drying of the soil, an aftermath of environmental change. He said the white fly was to a great extent obscure to the region and samples had been sent to the Forest Research Institute for its clear identification.
Muraleedharan also underlined that bugs like tea mosquito, scale insects, mealy bugs and green hoppers have increased, something that was never recorded in tea or other vegetation in the State. These bugs suck the sap of the tea bushes.
Even increase in the assortment of weeds in the gardens is creating a problem for tea cultivators.
Responding to the situation, a recent study was carried out in Tocklai by UK-based Education Research Initiative with the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. The study, titled Climate-Smartening Assam's Tea Plantation Landscapes: Defining Socio-ecological 'Safe Spaces' for Future Sustainability, focussed on investigating the extent to which climate variability is influencing tea yield in a high quality producing region of the world as India, which is the world's second largest producer of tea.
"Primary discoveries of a task show that adjustments in precipitation are influencing yields because of water confinements, as opposed to temperature. In the event that precipitation is sufficient and very much circulated, higher temperatures won't limit yield. Be that as it may, if precipitation is limited, even ideal temperature can't maintain the yield,” saysBhagat. He says a web-enabled decision support system is under development to provide better-informed climate advisory services under the project. The detailed findings of the research, which studied 80 gardens, will be revealed soon in an international conference in the U.S., he adds.
More climate change trouble means less production and more investment in new machines that can handle 17 per cent of output in just a month’s time. It also means the need for advanced storage facilities.
The future looks bleak since Indian tea traders are already saying that they can’t consider raising the price of their products even if the production cost does because of the competition in the international market. India's main competitors are Kenya and Sri Lanka.
While the weather conditions of Sri Lanka have been traditionally like that of Assam, the global climate change is turning out to be good news for Kenya. The African country is presently profiting from the rising temperatures. In the past, its tea industry experienced a cool climate, which was not quite ideal for tea bushes.
( Chandrani Sinha is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. She travels around the region to gather news. She is also an executive member of Guwahati-based youth organization WAY Foundation.)