Climate change hits India as millions suffer from extreme heatwave

It’s not even Summer yet, and a heatwave is raging across much of India, with record temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) expected in the coming days. The extreme heat poses not only a risk to the health of millions of people but also the country’s grain harvest, at a time when the war in Ukraine has already created a global food crisis.

Image credit: World Bank

A heat dome, similar to the one that increased temperatures in the Pacific Northwest last year, has formed in India, according to the country’s meteorological department (IMD). Temperatures have hit a 122-year record and could worsen in the coming months. Heat waves in this region usually reach their peak in May before the monsoon rains.

This March was the hottest in 122 years since IMD started taking notes. It came after the extreme heat in March last year, which was the third hottest on record. The number of heatwave days (over 40 degrees Celsius) in the country has risen rapidly, from 41 in 1981-90 to 600 in 2011-20, according to ongoing IMD research.

The northwestern and central parts of India including Gujarat, Maharashtra and Delhi were among the most affected areas. The highest maximum temperature of 45 degrees Celsius (113°F) was reported at Wardha, in central India. The country’s average temperature has increased by 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.26° Fahrenheit) between 1901–2018, according to the IMD report, which attributes this to global warming.

This is less than the global average, but it’s not just about average temperatures: we know that climate change increases the risk of extreme weather events (such as heat waves), which we see here. The report also found that under a business as usual scenario, extreme heat could increase by 50% to 70% by 2100 — a global trend that researchers have been warning about for more than a decade.

Climate and agriculture

Millions of people in the affected areas of India do not have access to air conditioning and can suffer from heat-related illnesses, which can be severe or even deadly. In addition, heat can make working outdoors unbearable for most of the day, which can have a significant impact on the economy. Nearly half of the country’s working-age population is engaged in agriculture, according to official data.

India’s prime minister told US President Joe Biden earlier this month that the country could step in to alleviate a grain shortage caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India’s wheat exports totaled 7.85 million tonnes in the fiscal year to March, an all-time record and a significant increase from the 2.1 million tonnes reported a year earlier,

However, the extreme heat has particularly affected the country’s main wheat-producing regions. An agricultural information officer in Punjab state told India Today that heat spells make wheat crops ripen faster, reducing grain size. This would result in a reduction in yields, he added, anticipating a significant effect.

Harjeet Singh, senior adviser to Climate Action Network International, told NBC that the heatwave will have “terrible” short- and long-term impacts on India and furthermore, anticipate rising wheat prices. “The impact will be felt outside of India,” he added, as countries rely on India to compensate for their grain needs.

However, this event clearly shows how much climate change is already having an impact. This is no longer a problem for future generations, it is a problem that strikes now, with very real and impactful effects. The window for taking decisive action on climate change is still open, but it won’t be open for too long.

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