Climate change and the agrarian crisis in India

Farmers and agricultural workers are demanding action on India’s “giant agrarian crisis”. As they march to Delhi, and as world leaders congregate in Poland for the COP24 conference on climate change, Nagraj Adve writes on how climate change is fuelling India’s crisis.

Originally posted in The Wire (India) and reposted on the People and Nature blog.

Farmers raise slogans during the Kisan Kranti Padyatra on the Delhi-UP border on October 2, 2018. Credit: PTI/Arun Sharma

A few years ago, a group of us from Delhi, along with members of the Gujarat Agricultural Labour Union and the International Union of Foodworkers, went to eastern Gujarat to speak to farmers about how a changing climate could be affecting their livelihoods. We found that warmer winters, particularly higher night-time temperatures, had resulted in a reduced or complete absence of dew. This was adversely affecting the rabi crop.

“Winters have been getting less cold for about 7-8 years,” a group of farmers told us in Jer Umaria, Panchmahal district. “Our wheat production has halved. The dew does not fall anymore.” Village after village in Panchmahal, being unable to afford wells and with poorly developed water markets in this predominantly Adivasi belt, most marginal farmers faced sharply reduced yields thanks to lesser dew. Many were forced to leave their land fallow.

Rising temperatures have also been impacting agriculture in faraway Sikkim, but differently. Across the Hindu Kush Himalaya, the average temperature has risen by 1.24º C in 1951‒2014, about twice as much as India’s average rise over the same period. Together with a steep rainfall decline in the Northeast – 15% below normal over the last 20 years – and prolonged dry spells, this has left many mountain springs with lower discharge, if they haven’t dried up entirely.

As a result, “the productivity of crops has drastically declined,” Ghanashyam Sharma, Head, The Mountain Institute India, Gangtok, told The Wire. “In Pendam, East Sikkim district, many farmers now cannot cultivate wet rice due to water scarcity. Its impacts are unequal [–] small and marginal farmers are particularly vulnerable, owing to their high dependence on agriculture for their livelihoods and chronic food insecurity.”

These are just two of the many ways in which climate change and increased variability are affecting farmers in different regions of the country. Later this week, thousands of farmers and agricultural labourers, organised by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, will congregate near Parliament. One major demand in their charter is a “three-week special session of Parliament to exclusively discuss the giant agrarian crisis”, and that Parliament pass “two vital Kisan Mukti bills” relating to indebtedness and remunerative minimum support prices for agricultural commodities.

A petition to President Ram Nath Kovind draws his, and our, attention to the “overall precariousness” that farmers face. One key element of such precariousness is the many ways in which climate change and greater variability are impacting agriculture. Let’s discuss four major ones, all of which are very long-term in nature.

Changes hurting farmers

First, even as moderate rainfall has decreased significantly over much of India in 1901-2014, extreme rainfall events (150+ mm a day) have been getting more frequent. One study says this is a trend “related to global sea surface temperatures”.

2017 paper in the journal Nature Communications showed that extreme rainfall over very vast areas has been occurring thrice as frequently as compared to the early 1950s along a large belt in central India. It has the potential to increase flooding with consequent damage to crops.

This has been happening even as rainfall variability has increased – especially a reduction in the southwest monsoon since 1950, related partly to a warmer Indian Ocean.

As one of the Nature paper’s authors, Raghu Murtugudde, an Earth-system scientist at the University of Maryland, said, “The bigger concern for agriculture is that mean rainfall has reduced but extremes have increased, the onset of the monsoon is delayed, and monsoon withdrawal is earlier. So the crop calendar is adversely affected and crop damages have gone up.”

Similarly, Sharma said, “Farmers here are frequently exposed to particularly long dry spells, which cause significant crop and income losses.”

Second is the issue of spreading droughts. Studies show that there has been a significant increase in the area, duration and intensity of monsoon droughts in India since the mid-1950s. This is connected to reduced rainfall, thanks in turn to a smaller temperature difference between the Indian Ocean and the Indian landmass. Droughts are not just about reduced rainfall: higher temperatures also increase the incidence of droughts, and their intensity and impact.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, interior areas tend to be affected by droughts due to global warming. One such may be Bundelkhand, parts of which have faced persistent droughts for the last two decades.

When we visited Bundelkhand in 2009, we witnessed a tragedy. Large lakes had dried up for the first time, lakhs of agricultural workers and small farmers – men and women – were migrating with their entire families. Livestock was being abandoned to dusty deaths because of water and fodder shortages.

Yogendra Yadav of the Swaraj Abhiyan and others extensively surveyed Bundelkhand during the drought in 2015. At a meeting in Delhi later that year, he said, “Compensation is low and late. We covered a hundred villages. … In Bundelkhand, 60% of the households have consumed no milk in the past one month, 40% have eaten no dal.”

A third way farming is affected is due to heat waves. A 2016 paper by P. Rohini, M. Rajeevan and A. K. Srivastava in the journal Nature Scientific Reports showed a significant increase in the frequency and duration of heat waves across swaths of India in 1961-2013. They were caused, among other reasons, by a warmer tropical Indian Ocean.

Excess heat increases evaporation, which makes the soils drier. Excess heat during certain stages of the crop cycle has been shown to affect the yield of crops like wheat and certain fruits in North India. It also stresses cows, buffaloes and other livestock, adversely affecting their health and milk yield.

It can also make agricultural labour more dangerous. In summer 2015, over “2,500 excess deaths” occurred in India in a heat wave “exacerbated by climate change”, according to a paper published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society the following year. This is only going to become more frequent, widespread and lethal as global warming worsens.

Centrality of Indian Ocean warming

An assimilation of multiple studies suggests that a warmer Indian Ocean is a common factor in reduced average rainfall since the 1950s, spreading droughts, more extreme rainfall, longer heat waves and longer and more frequent rainstorms. All these changes hurt Indian agriculture and farmers.

The Indian Ocean, like all the world’s oceans, is warming chiefly because over 90% of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases is stored in the oceans. However, the Indian Ocean is warming more than other equatorial oceans partly because it also receives heat from other oceans. Says Murtugudde, “If the Southern Ocean warms, then it brings more heat and if the Pacific warms, the Indonesian throughflow brings more heat.”

More surprisingly, the Indian Ocean is also warming faster than the Indian landmass because “pollution is causing solar dimming and not letting the land warm as much,” he said. So the temperature difference between the subcontinent and the ocean, an important driver of the Indian summer monsoon has dropped. Murtugudde: “This has caused a reduction of the mean summer monsoon by about 10 per cent since 1950.” And the spreading droughts.

Impacts will intensify

Most of these impacts will intensify because the world is only going to warm more, also thanks to the oceans: due to their thermal inertia, they are expected to release much of the heat they have absorbed in the past.

One such long-term effect on Indian agriculture that will worsen is sea-level rise. I visited the Sunderbans in 2014, and saw that the devastation to small agriculture was drastic: farmlands nibbled away by advancing waters, plots now on the shoreline having turned saline.

Sea level rise is set to accelerate worldwide. It has so far been mostly linear. In the near and foreseeable future, it will be driven by the accelerating melting of the great ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica, a process that will last for centuries. The result will be for millions of farmers, fishers, and other communities living on some of the most fertile land in India along India’s 7,500-km coastline to face what agriculturalists in the Sunderbans are facing today.

Perhaps we can visualise a farmers’ march 20 years from now, with an additional demand: resettlement, for lands and homes they have lost to an advancing sea. This, the other impacts discussed above and many more together make up the elements of a long-term crisis staring Indian farmers in the face. How bad it will be depends on how quickly we intervene now.

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Nagraj Adve works and writes on issues related to global warming. His booklet, Global Warming in the Indian Context: An Introductory Overview, has been translated into Hindi, Kannada, and Tamil.

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