India’s heatwave threatens residents and a crucial wheat crop

PARIS – A record heatwave in India exposing hundreds of millions of people to dangerous temperatures is damaging the country’s wheat crop, which experts say could hit countries seeking to offset imports of the staple from conflict-torn Ukraine.

As some states in India’s northern and central breadbasket regions see forecasts with highs of 120 degrees Fahrenheit this week, observers fear a range of lasting impacts, both local and international, from the heat wave.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told US President Joe Biden earlier this month that India could step in to make up the shortfall created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries account for almost a third of all global wheat exports, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has warned that the conflict could leave between 8 and 13 million more people undernourished by next year.

India’s wheat exports reached 8.7 million tonnes in the fiscal year ending in March, with the government forecasting record production levels – some 122 million tonnes – in 2022.

But the country has just suffered its hottest March since records began, according to India’s Meteorological Department, and the heat wave is extending well into harvest time.

The heatwave is hitting India’s major wheat growing regions particularly hard, with temperatures this week expected to reach 112 F in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh; 120 F in Chandigarh, Punjab; and 109 F in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

Devendra Singh Chauhan, a farmer from Etawah district in Uttar Pradesh, told NBC News that his wheat harvest was down 60% from normal harvests.

“In March, when the ideal temperature was supposed to rise gradually, we saw it suddenly go from 32°C to 40°C [90 F to 104 F]“, he said in a text message. “If such unreasonable weather conditions continue year after year, farmers will suffer greatly.”

Harjeet Singh, senior adviser at Climate Action Network International, said the heat wave would have a “horrible” short- and long-term impact on people in India and elsewhere.

“[Wheat] prices will go up, and if you look at what is happening in Ukraine, with many countries relying on Indian wheat to compensate, the impact will be felt far beyond India,” Singh said.

Harish Damodaran, senior researcher at the Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, said regions that planted earlier tended to escape the worst impacts on their crops. In other regions, however, warm temperatures hit during wheat’s crucial “grain filling” phase, which is essential for producing high yields.

“Temperatures just went up,” he said. “It was like an electric shock, and so we’re talking about yields more or less everywhere down 15-20%.”

“I don’t know if India will be able to meet export demand as it will create domestic supply issues as wheat prices increase,” Damodaran added. “India cannot replace Russia and Ukraine in its wheat exports, mainly because of this heat shock.”

Monika Tothova, an economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, was more measured. She said that although the heat wave would likely cause “localized crop losses… a significant impact on the global market is not implied.”

She said India still had good wheat stocks and might be able “at least in part” to cover some supply shortfalls due to the situation in Ukraine.

Scientists have also expressed concern over the human cost of India’s extreme heat wave.

In a bombshell February report, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said global warming meant that hundreds of millions of people were already or would soon be exposed to extreme heat, depending on carbon emissions.

By 2100, he said half to three-quarters of humanity would be exposed “to periods of life-threatening climatic conditions resulting from coupled impacts of extreme heat and humidity”.

Chandni Singh, an environmental social scientist at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, said while the heat wave may not be producing headline-grabbing deaths, the damage caused by this heat wave heat and future heat waves would nevertheless be significant.

“People living in informal settlements or those working in labor-intensive outdoor jobs are hardest hit, with few options or resources to cool their homes,” she said. .

The UN has predicted a short-term increase in temperature and humidity across the Indian subcontinent due to climate change. This means that hundreds of millions of people could face higher so-called wet bulb temperatures, where air cannot be cooled by evaporation of water and sweating alone is unable to cool a human body. .

A wet bulb temperature of 95 F is insurmountable for more than six hours, even for healthy adults resting in the shade.

“I am very concerned about the impacts this will have on informal livelihoods in cities that often occur in cramped and poorly ventilated spaces, often from people’s homes,” Singh said.

Roxy Mathew Koll, a climatologist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and lead author of the IPCC, said more research was needed to directly link the current heat wave to climate change, “the root cause of increased heat waves. heat in the Indo-Pakistan region is global warming due to man-made carbon emissions.

He said some Indian cities had learned lessons from previous deadly heat waves, such as limiting office hours and implementing early warning systems.

But these were short-term measures that failed to cope with the increasingly frequent and extreme temperatures that will prevail in India in the near future, Koll said.

“After seeing my son walk out of school with heat stroke, we spoke to the headmaster of the school, showing him the heat wave data and forecast. They immediately reduced school hours,” he said.

“However, it’s only for one school,” Koll said. “We need such policies to work at the government and state level.”