13 July 2023

Climate change threatens India’s agriculture and development


Extreme heat waves, made more and more frequent by climate change, continue in India. Soil productivity is at risk, as is the achievement of growth targets

by Matteo Cavallito


The extreme heat waves experienced in India in 2022 impacted 90 per cent of the population, increasing the risk of food insecurity, economic damage and premature deaths. This was claimed by a study by a group of researchers from Cambridge University in the UK and Yale University in the US.

The study, which was published in April this year and reported by the Australian network The Conversation, among others, is back in the news in recent days after the abnormal temperatures hit the country again in recent weeks, impacting human health as well as agriculture.

Extreme events impact agricultural land

“Due to the unprecedented burdens on public health, agriculture, and other socio-economic and cultural systems, climate change-induced heatwaves in India can hinder or reverse the country’s progress in fulfilling the Sustainable development goals (SDGs),” the research states. The negative impact, the scientists continue, mainly affects the adaptive capacity of basic resources, grain yields, the spread of diseases and urban sustainability. Northern states, which experience the highest temperature anomalies, are particularly affected.

This phenomenon is nothing new. Last year, the US NGO Mongabay pointed out how the spread of extreme events – from heat waves to floods – has long been having direct effects on agricultural production.

“In six years (2015-21),” the US organisation wrote, “the country lost 33.9 million hectares of the cropped area due to floods and excess rains and 35 million hectares due to drought, which are likely to intensify as various studies predict.”

India is one of the countries most affected by climate change

Global warming is obviously crucial. “As a natural phenomenon, extreme heat is projected to occur once every 30 years or so in the Indian subcontinent,” The Conversation recently wrote. “This is no longer the case thanks to man-made climate change. India has suffered over 24,000 heatwave-related deaths since 1992 alone, with the May 1998 heatwave being one of the most devastating as it claimed over 3,058 lives.”

In April this year, CNN recalled, India experienced yet another wave that saw temperatures in the capital Delhi exceed 40 degrees. In some states, the heat damaged crops and put pressure on energy supplies. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), India is expected to be among the countries most affected by the climate crisis in the coming years.

Nearly 9% of GDP at risk

According to the study, underestimating the effects of climate in India could reduce or even reverse progress in combating poverty, hunger, promoting economic growth and protecting biodiversity. Extreme heat, The Conversation points out, can further exacerbate drought, drying up the soil and altering rainfall patterns, thus damaging crops.

For a country like India, with its still predominantly rural economy, “productivity losses in this sector threaten the jobs and health of millions of marginal and small landholding farmers, as well as their ability to adapt and take up new livelihoods.” If the effects of climate change are not effectively countered, the study argues, “The increased heat is expected to cost India 2.8%, and 8.7% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and depressed living standards by 2050 and 2100, respectively.”