The rainiest months of the Costa Rican year are September and October. According to the National Meteorology Institute (IMN), the two months average 22.5 meters of rain, meaning a daily afternoon downpour is usually on tap.
Yet during the final week of September, afternoons in the Central Valley were dry and sunny. Threatening clouds came to pass and umbrellas remained unopened. The scene was the same in several regions of the country, including the Caribbean and northern portion of the Heredia and Alajuela provinces.
At the end of the month, figures tallied by the IMN revealed near record drops in precipitation. In Alajuela, northwest of San José, rainfall was 39 percent below September averages. Liberia, the capital of the northwest Guanacaste province, saw a 38 percent deficit. On the Caribbean coast, which is on pace for one of the driest years in history, rainfall was 52 percent below the monthly average. Overall for the month, September rains were down 41 percent.
According to Eladio Solano, a meteorologist at IMN, the lack of rain can be attributed a “neutral” weather system not considered to be an El Niño or La Niña pattern, winds that have directed Caribbean tropical storms and hurricanes north of Costa Rica, and brief, strong, intermittent rains.
“Last year was a La Niña year with very strong rains. This year the final effects of La Niña were very light, making this year a neutral phase between El Niño and La Niña,” Solano told The Tico Times this week. “We have also seen erratic rains that are very strong, though very isolated. We are getting intense, very short rains, though there is not the typical rhythm characteristic of a rainy season.”
As the rains have diminished, farmers are feeling the effects of a minor drought. For some crops, a drier season has brought positive results. Ronald Peters, executive director of the Costa Rican Coffee Institute, said this week that the diminished amounts of rain during peak coffee harvest season yielded a larger production of 60-kilogram bags. Costa Rican coffee exports were up nearly 3 percent during the current harvest season, the first increase since 2007-2008.
According to the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry (MAG), coffee sales decreased by $29 million due to rains in 2010.
“We lost over 75,000 bags last year due to rains,” Peters said. “With less rain during harvest and recollection season, farmers had more coffee to export and made larger profits.”
Less rain has been problematic for other sectors. In the rain-deprived Limón province, Eric Quirós, director of regional operations for MAG, said Costa Rican cash-cows pineapples and bananas could frace significant losses due to parched farmland. He said some plantations have been forced to ration water while others don’t have the installed infrastructure to irrigate crops.
Quirós also said that farmers in the Northern Zone, particularly in the towns of Upala and Los Chiles, are reporting limited grass growth, meaning cows are underfed and producing less milk. During a similar dry spell in 2008, Quirós said that cattle died and crippled small farmers in the Upala region.
“The lack of rain is not as extreme as it was three years ago, but we are watching the region very closely,” Quirós said. “If October doesn’t bring more rain, some farmers will have to either move their cattle temporarily to a different region or sell them. Most small farmers don’t have the reserves to feed an entire herd of hungry cows during a drought.”
Despite the effects of a drier rainy season, a year ago at this time, record rains were bombarding the country. Landslides, including one on Nov. 5, 2010, killed 28 in Escazú, caused road closures and collapsed bridges. Sections of the country were paralyzed and commerce suffered. Quirós said the agriculture sector lost an estimated $53 million in 2010 due to rains.
So what’s worse for farmers, a deluge of rain that causes flooding and damage, or a drought?
“They both cause plenty of problems,” Quirós said. “If it rains every day in the Caribbean, eventually there are floods, landslides and drowned crops. But if not one drop of rain falls for 10 weeks, people and farms are without water and plantations dry out and die. Neither option is good.”
October is the final month of the rainy season and has thus far lived up to its expectations. The IMN reported that about 40 millimeters fell in the Central Valley during the first weekend of the month, with 75 mm falling in Guanacaste and the northern part of the country.
“October has started out with a more typical rhythm of what you’d expect from rainy season,” Solano said. “We expect that it will remain that way throughout the month with large downpours and lightning storms, and return to a more normal pattern for the final month of the rainy season.”