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Indian Heatwave May Exacerbate World Wheat Crisis

Summary:
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans. Indian is currently suffering through an unprecedented early heatwave, with temperatures topping 45 degrees Celsius (113 degree Fahrenheit) throughout the country, according to an account in The Hindu, Intense heat broils large swathes of India, IMD says no relief for next 5 days, published last Thursday. These are the highest temperatures recorded  for March since the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) first began recording temperatures 122 years ago. Per The Hindu: Gurugram logged an all-time high of 45.6 degrees Celsius, breaking the previous record of 44.8 degrees Celsius on April 28, 1979. Its neighbour Delhi saw the hottest April day in

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Indian is currently suffering through an unprecedented early heatwave, with temperatures topping 45 degrees Celsius (113 degree Fahrenheit) throughout the country, according to an account in The Hindu, Intense heat broils large swathes of India, IMD says no relief for next 5 days, published last Thursday.

These are the highest temperatures recorded  for March since the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) first began recording temperatures 122 years ago. Per The Hindu:

Gurugram logged an all-time high of 45.6 degrees Celsius, breaking the previous record of 44.8 degrees Celsius on April 28, 1979.

Its neighbour Delhi saw the hottest April day in 12 years at 43.5 degrees Celsius. The national capital recorded a maximum temperature of 43.7 degrees Celsius on April 18, 2010.

The intense heatwave scorched Allahabad (45.9 degrees Celsius) in Uttar Pradesh; Khajuraho (45.6 degrees Celsius), Nowgong (45.6 degrees Celsius), and Khargone (45.2 degrees Celsius) in Madhya Pradesh; Akola (45.4 degrees Celsius), Bramhapuri (45.2 degrees Celsius) and Jalgaon (45.6 degrees Celsius) in Maharashtra and Jharkhand’s Daltonganj (45.8 degrees Celsius).

Now, I should point out that what’s unusual isn’t these maximum temperatures per se.Instead, it’s their timing that’s causing concern, as they’re occurring at what’s only the beginning of the Indian summer. The cooling monsoon rains are still months away and usually arrive in the south of the country in June, and then slowly extend throughout the entire country. According to The Hindu:

A heatwave is declared when the maximum temperature is over 40 degrees Celsius and at least 4.5 notches above normal. A severe heatwave is declared if the departure from normal temperature is more than 6.4 notches, according to the IMD.

Based on absolute recorded temperatures, a heatwave is declared when an area logs a maximum temperature of 45 degrees Celsius.

A severe heatwave is declared if the maximum temperature crosses the 47-degree mark.

Most Indians, about 65% of the population, still live in rural villages. I know from extensive travels throughout the country that homes are constructed so as to shelter villagers from extreme heat – and rains, when they come. Except for those who dwell in mountainous regions,  extreme cold doesn’t pose a problem for most Indians and many (if not most) Indian homes lack anything but the most basic heating systems. During the couple of winter months, people don warmer clothes, or make do with space heaters or indoor fires.

I’ve often visited the small farming village of Bhatkunda in West Bengal, about an hour’s ride from Shantiniketan, a university town that’s become a popular weekend retreat for people from Calcutta (Kolkata). When I visit this village I stay at the home Rajik Khan shares with his wife and two daughters.

Bhatkunda wouldn’t be out of place in a Satyajit Ray film (although most of the classic Pather Panchali was actually filmed in Boral, now subsumed into metropolitan Kolkata (see this account in The Hindustan Times, Revisiting Satyajit Ray’s Boral, the village from where he started his cinematic journey in Pather Panchali).

Rajik Khan lives in a comfortable, thick-walled house, the largest in town but still rather modest by developed country standards. I’m not sure whether his house is made out of rammed earth or concrete; I do know it’s painted a cheery shade of  yellow, with brown trimming, and decorative wrought iron grills. There’s no air-conditioning, although some rooms have ceiling fans. The bathroom has a cold shower. Power cuts are frequent so that the house has been designed to be comfortable even when there’s no electricity.

The kitchen is separate from the main house, in another building. Other village houses are also thick-walled and although many of these lack ceiling fans, most everyone has at least a portable fan.

I’ve visited Bhatkunda during many months of the year, including June, just prior to the onset of the monsoon, when the summer’s heat is at its fiercest. During the heat of the day, I remained inside, with doors thrown open to the outside. IIRC, there’s no glass in the windows, so air flows easily through the house. I slept comfortably, even when power cuts stopped the overhead fans. The occasional cold shower offered pleasant relief from the heat.

This year, extreme heat has arrived in India much earlier than it should have. Indian government officials warn that people need to be alive to the possible health effects caused by excessive heat. More people die annually from heat exposure in India and Brazil than anywhere else in the world, according to Juan Cole writing in Common Dreams, Climate Emergency: India’s Unprecedented Heatwave Adds to Global Bread Shortages.

Early heatwaves produce the highest mortality rates. According to The Hindu:

Dileep Mavalankar, the director of the Indian Institute of Public Health Gandhinagar (IIPHG), said, “People need to watch out for IMD advisories, stay indoors, keep themselves hydrated and rush to the nearest health centre if they feel moderate signs of heat-related illness.”

“There’s a special need to monitor the old and vulnerable just like we did during the COVID-19 waves as they can develop heat strokes even when sitting at home,” he said.

Mr. Mavalankar said that cities should monitor all-cause mortality data daily along with that of hospital admissions and ambulance calls to compare it with the last five years of data to get a real indication of heat stress on mortality.

Early heatwaves have a higher rate of mortality since adaptation and preparedness is low during March and April, he said.

The absence of normal levels of periodic light rainfall has caused the current heatwave, according to The Hindu:

Large parts of India have been recording higher than normal temperatures since the last week of March, with weather experts attributing it to the absence of periodic light rainfall and thundershowers, typical for this time of the year, due to the lack of active western disturbances.

Northwest India saw at least four western disturbances in March and April, but they were not strong enough to cause a significant change in weather, said Mahesh Palawat, Vice President (Meteorology and Climate Change), Skymet, a private weather forecasting agency.

This explanation accords with what Indian friends have told me about their country’s shifting weather patterns. One of my closest Indian friends has lived in Calcutta (Kolkata) for most of her life. And she’s said that in recent years, the city’s typical pre-monsoon summer weather patterns have changed.  Formerly, nor’westers -kailbaishakhi in Bengali  – were not uncommon from the month of Baisakh – April, until the monsoon arrives in northwest India sometime in June  (see this wikipedia account, Nor’wester,  No longer, however.

That being said, I just spoke today  to two other Kolkata friends. Each told me that it rained over the previous couple of days, although Monday was dry, so the heat situation is somewhat better there than elsewhere in India. Temperatures and humidity are still high; Bengalis are being braised rather than baked.

Effect of the Current Heatwave  on India’s Wheat Crop

The present heatwave couldn’t arrive at a worse time as far as India’s wheat production  is concerned, thus exacerbating the global wheat crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and the imposition of sanctions on Russia. India is the world’s second largest wheat producer, but to date has been an insignificant exporter, with most of its wheat crop directed towards domestic consumption. Until the current heatwave arose, it appeared that India had the potential to increase its wheat production so as to make up some of the current world wheat shortfall, according to Worldgrain.com, Heat wave strikes India’s wheat production. The latest heat surge has imperilled wheat crops:

While recent high temperatures have roasted India for weeks, approaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius), it was heat in March that has imperiled wheat during the crucial final stages of maturation. Regions that planted earlier tended to escape the worst impacts on their harvests.

Alas, although many Indians can shelter in their homes during the heat of the day, farmers must toil in the sun.  The heat stress situation in India’s prime wheat producing regions is particularly dire and expected to worsen over time. According to Common Dreams:

A recent article by Mariam Zachariah et al. in Geophysical Research Letters finds that:

The three states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh in the Indo-Gangetic Plains are the largest wheat producers in India, playing a crucial role in ensuring food security of this densely populated country. Wheat, a winter crop, is reported to be sensitive to heat stress because of rising temperatures and climate change. However, in previous studies, the sensitivity of wheat yield has been mainly explored with respect to the magnitude of temperature. Here, based on statistical analysis of observed temperature and actual wheat production data, we show that the magnitude, frequency, and areal extent of agricultural heat stress events are increasing in India’s wheat belt, with frequency showing the most pronounced trend… Under climate change, chances of below-average wheat production rise by 8%–27% in the worst-case scenario.”

So the authors are saying that high-powered modeling shows that not only increased average temperatures in India but also more frequent extreme heatwaves have the potential of reducing wheat yields by as much as 27%. They say this is a worst-case scenario, but at the moment we are heading for the worst case scenario of the climate emergency, since nobody is significantly reducing their carbon dioxide emissions, which jumped up last year.

India certainly doesn’t need a drop inits  wheat yields at this time – especially as other aspects of the Ukraine crisis such as the global fertiliser shortage  – are already increasing the costs of its food production.  Until recently, it appeared that in the short-term, an increasing volume of  Indian wheat might have been exported so to alleviate world wheat shortfalls somewhat. Per Worldgrain.com

In mid-February, nearly a month before the recent hot spell, the government said India was on course to harvest an all-time high 111.32 million tonnes of the grain, up from the previous year’s 109.59 million tonnes. The government has yet to formally revise its production estimates, but an official note, seen by Reuters, said the output could fall to 105 million tonnes this year.

“The heat spell (in March) occurred very fast and also matured the crop at a faster pace, which shriveled the grain size,” JDS Gill, the agriculture information officer in the state of Punjab, told India Today. “This also resulted in a drop in yield.”

Even though it is the world’s second-largest producer of wheat with nearly 110 million tonnes last year, India exports only a small fraction of its harvest. Seven consecutive years of record wheat production and good stockpiles had the country looking to ship more wheat overseas to ease the global disruption of wheat supplies caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine and develop new markets in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

India had been projected to set a record for wheat exports in the 2021-22 marketing year at nearly 9 million tonnes and perhaps double that amount in the following season, according to Piyush Goyal, India’s commerce minister. That level now looks uncertain given the smaller potential yield and need to balance domestic needs for its 1.4 billion people.

The current heatwave appears to have dashed optimistic expectations that India might increase its wheat exports. India’s focus must instead remain on meeting its domestic food needs. In no way can the government allow a chase for higher wheat export prices to compromise the food security of ordinary Indians.  And over the longer term, the worst case scenario outlined in the Zachariah et al paper suggests that with increased heat stress being an expected part of India’s climate future, lower wheat yields might also soon follow.

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