Heat waves have destroyed food crops in India, but funds remain scarce for climate-proof agriculture


India experienced its hottest March this year since the Indian Meteorological Department began recording weather data in 1901. April was no better: the heat wave continued and 14 weather stations beat their highest temperature records previously recorded.

The heat wave made global headlines as it scorched the wheat crop at a time when the Russian-Ukrainian war had made more countries dependent on wheat supplies from India. International wheat prices jumped 6% after India banned wheat exports.

But the crisis is not an anomaly. Experts say it’s an indication of what’s to come as the world continues to heat up. With food production becoming increasingly vulnerable to extreme weather events, there is an urgent need to allocate more funds to make agriculture in countries like India climate-resilient.

A scorching heat wave

This year, scorching temperatures have swept across India just as winter-sown crops were ripening for harvest. The Department of Agriculture estimates that approximately 20% of the wheat crop was damaged.

But it wasn’t just wheat that was affected. In Maharashtra, horticultural crops such as guava and mango have withered, said Pushkaraj Tayde, secretary of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, a non-profit organization based in Jalna. “Chilli production also declined and some sugarcane fields caught fire in the last week of April due to the heat wave,” he said.

Although this year’s heat wave was particularly strong and infrequent – ​​heat waves are usually seen in May and June – these periods of high and sometimes record high temperatures are becoming the norm.

Increase frequency

Data compiled by the Indian Meteorological Department show that since 1901, 12 of the 15 hottest years have been recorded over the past decade and a half, with 2016 being the hottest.

Along with rising temperature levels, heat waves are also increasing. A 2020 study, which analyzed the ten-year plan heat waves between 1951 and 2016, saw an increase in frequency as well as in the geographical area affected.

Between 1951 and 1970, the country recorded an average of two to three heat waves. But after the 1980s, the average number of heat events rose sharply and the area affected increased, according to the study.

For example, during the decade 2001-2010, regions such as Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh and parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu experienced heat waves. In previous decades, these areas had experienced no or few heat waves.

An analysis of the 2022 heat wave revealed that such extreme event which typically occurs once every 100 years has become 30 times more likely due to the effects of climate change.

The analysis was published as a study by the World Weather Attribution initiative, a collaboration of climate scientists from India, the UK, the US, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

“At the global average temperature scenario of +2C [more than 2 degrees Celsius] such a heat wave would become an additional factor of 2-20 more likely and 0.5-1.5C [degrees Celsius] warmer compared to 2022,” the study said.

Weather patterns, human activities

This year’s heat wave is the result of a dual process. The first concerns global weather conditions. Between December and April, the rains over parts of India and Pakistan are caused by the western disturbance.

The Western Disturbance is a weather system of extratropical storms originating in the Mediterranean – hence, “western” and “extratropical”, i.e. outside the tropics – brought to India by the subtropical westerly wind from the jet stream.

When these jet stream winds are weak, the disturbance from the west is weak, which means rainfall between December and April will either be light or mostly absent as was the case this year – 71% below from normal in March.

The other climatic factor is La Niña in the Pacific. La Niña, or Little Girl, is part of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycle – an interaction between the trade winds that blow east to west near the equator and the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean – which affects weather systems global.

Studies have shown that La Niña conditions cause cloudlessness and high temperatures over India and Pakistan. Climate change affects the El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycle.

A flood-damaged road after heavy rains in Assam’s Nagaon district on May 19. Credit: Reuters

Krishna AchutaRao, from the Center for Atmospheric Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and co-author of the World Weather Attribution study, said their analysis refers to a few studies that highlight the impact of climate change. on Western disturbances.

“Basically, a reduction is expected. The influence of climate change on El Niño/La Niña is a vast area of ​​research and the literature seems to point to more severe events [both El Niño and La Niña] in the future,” AchutaRao said.

The other reason behind extreme heat waves is not based on weather systems, but rather reflects human activity on a regional level.

Studies have found two forces with competing influences on extreme heat: aerosol atmospheric pollutants – fine particles emitted by the combustion of fossil fuels which are suspended in the air – and irrigation. While irrigation reduces warming, some aerosol pollutants, such as black carbon and dust, increase it.

In India, given the low levels of pre-monsoon irrigation activity and the abundance of black carbon and dust, another 2018 study concluded that aerosols and irrigation would have a limited effect: “…Evidence suggests that – for the specific case of a March-April heat wave affecting northwest India and Pakistan – the importance of short-lived aerosols or increased irrigation in suppressing the warming effect of greenhouse gases may be lower than previously thought.

Funding challenges

Heat waves and extreme weather events are therefore here to stay and are likely to increase in frequency and severity. While studies and research establish a clear link between extreme weather events and climate change, efforts to build climate resilience have not taken off.

At the 2015 Paris conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it was decided that the developed world would contribute to a $100 billion Green Climate Fund by 2020. The funds would be used to solve problems such as making agriculture climate proof.

But it hasn’t happened yet, says a 2021 report on Climate Fund by Climate Policy Initiative, a global analysis and advisory organization. The target has been postponed to 2023.

“Adaptation funding increased by 53% to $46 billion in 2019/2020 from $30 billion in 2017/2018. Despite this positive trend, total adaptation finance remains well below the scale needed to respond to current and future climate change,” the report states.

A 2020 report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the United Nations Climate Policy Initiative revealed that only 1.7% of climate finance goes to smallholder farmers in developing countries.

According to the report, smallholder farmers produce 50% of the world’s food calories, but bear the brunt of extreme weather events such as the increased incidence of droughts and floods, which destroy crops and livestock.

“[Such incidents]…make it difficult for them to continue to feed their communities and earn a living,” the report says. At least 80% of farmers in India can be classified as small.

Another emerging trend is that most climate finance is channeled into the renewable energy sector. « Solar PV [photovoltaic, or solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity] and onshore wind continued to be the largest recipient of renewable energy funding, attracting over 91% of all mitigation investments,” the Climate Policy Initiative funding report states.

Indian realities

In India too, few sectors have monopolized the most fundingaccording to a 2020 report by the Climate Policy Initiative.

Between 2016 and 2018, public climate finance disbursed by central government ministries or state departments was largely directed to the power generation sector – 70% – followed by energy efficiency and electricity transmission (20%), and sustainable transport (10%). says the report.

One of 150 electric buses at a launch ceremony in New Delhi on May 24. Credit: PTI.

Worse still, amid concerns about how food production is being affected, the government has cut funds set aside to build climate resilience in the agricultural sector.

In 2016-17, the Union budget earmarked Rs 103 crore for the Ministry of Agriculture under the Climate Resilient Agriculture Initiative, but this was reduced to Rs 55 crore in 2021-22.

Avantika Goswami, program manager, climate change, at the Delhi-based non-profit Center for Science and Environment, said a tiny fraction of climate finance is diverted to the agricultural sector.

She stressed that there needs to be widespread awareness of how climate change is causing crises in the agricultural sector, and that funding benefits smallholder farmers and their livelihoods.

“We need to ensure that climate finance is directed, not just to big agribusiness and agritech companies, but to public research into climate-resilient seed varieties and protecting the livelihoods of smallholders. farmers,” Goswami said.

She also said that efforts to protect small farmers from climate change must include funding early warning systems for extreme weather events and securing incomes after such incidents.

The wheat crisis has shown that the threat of extreme weather events due to climate change is not just limited to producing countries, but affects the whole world. This should be a lesson.


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