Catastrophe comes when crises collide: Heat wave in India and Pakistan has global implications

As many of you are probably already aware, India and Pakistan are facing a particularly nasty heat wave. Heat is much more difficult to escape than cold, without modern technology, and unfortunately there are a lot of people in those countries without access to air conditioning. This is one of those situations where wealthy nations have a moral obligation to the rest of the world. Instead of letting a few monsters become cartoonishly wealthy, we should be working to implement carbon-free power generation around the world, and on making sure that everyone at minimum has access to air-conditioned shelters. Heat waves should be treated as seriously as we treat things like hurricanes or tornados, especially since we know that it’s only going to get worse.

Beyond all of that, however, we also have to come back to one of the central themes of this blog: Agriculture.

A record-breaking heat wave in India exposing hundreds of millions to dangerous temperatures is damaging the country’s wheat harvest, which experts say could hit countries seeking to make up imports of the food staple from conflict-riven Ukraine.

With some states in India’s breadbasket northern and central regions seeing forecasts with highs of 120 Fahrenheit this week, observers fear a range of lasting impacts, both local and international, from the hot spell.

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

India’s wheat exports hit 8.7 million tons in the fiscal year ending in March, with the government predicting record production levels — some 122 million tons — in 2022.

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

The heat wave is hitting India’s main wheat-growing regions particularly hard, with temperatures this week set to hit 112 F in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh; 120 F in Chandigarh, Punjab; and 109 F in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
Devendra Singh Chauhan, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh’s Etawah district, told NBC News that his wheat crop was down 60 percent compared to normal harvests.

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

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

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

Harish Damodaran, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said regions that planted earlier tended to escape the worst impacts on their harvests. In other regions, however, the hot temperatures hit during the wheat’s crucial “grain filling” stage, which is critical for producing high yields.

“Temperatures just shot up,” he said. “It was like an electric shock, and so we are talking of yields more or less everywhere coming down 15 to 20 percent.”

What worries me is that this is just a taste of what’s to come. A big part of the reason for this growing global food crisis is that a vicious asshole decided to invade a neighboring country, but the reality is that war is likely to become more common as temperatures increase,  especially if it continues to be so profitable to the ruling classes that tend to start most of the wars. The reality is that war in one region will be increasingly dangerous to everyone else, because the odds grow every year that we’ll have crises collide, as we’re seeing now.

It’s not just the war in Ukraine and the heat wave in India, either. China’s wheat crop is also doing badly right now.

A Chinese agricultural official said on March 5 that this year’s China winter wheat crop could be the “worst in history,” Reuters reported.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Tang Renjian told reporters at the country’s annual parliament meeting that a survey taken of the crop prior to the start of winter showed a 20% reduction in first- and second-grade winter wheat, due mainly to heavy rainfall during planting that reduced acreage by one-third.

War has never been something we could “afford”, but now more than ever, it’s something that can have a global impact even without its devastating environmental impact, and the threat of nuclear weapons. I don’t think a more democratic planet would see war eliminated altogether, but I think there would be far less of it driven by the greed or bigotry of people whose wealth and power separates them from humanity. That means doing the work of building democracy – something that was never done, despite all the lip service given to it in the past. As always, I don’t have all the answers. I’m trying to figure out some of them, and for others – like agriculture – I’m relying on the basics of what we know is coming for us.

If we want to avoid mass death on a scale never before seen in history, I think it would be a very good idea for us to invest in indoor food production. As I’ve said before, I think a lot of that effort should go into things like bacterial and algal food stocks that can serve as a staple for most people. I also think we should invest in communal greenhouses, as well as more large-scale indoor farming operations.  The more we plan ahead, and act before disaster strikes, the more we’ll be able to work on things like improving quality of life, and even reducing greenhouse gas levels.

And in case it needs to be said, I really, really don’t care whether indoor food production is profitable right now. I can’t think of a clearer indication that our concept of profit is flawed than the idea that humanity’s survival might be “unprofitable”.

This is a warning, as clear and as dire as those issued by climate scientists. At the moment, it seems that all of our “leaders” are either unwilling or unable to hear or act on these warnings, so we need a different way of managing governance. How much longer will people keep believing that our current political and economic systems are up to the needs of the moment?

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  1. Katydid says

    120 degrees seems to be the temperature that a lot of insects die off. Some insects–like bees, for example–are actually useful for agriculture.

  2. planter says

    Hearing about things like this that I don’t see on the news is one of the reasons I like to follow your blog – thanks.

    In western Canada we are at risk for low yields this year again. Last year saw very low yields in many areas due to drought, and this year may be the same. We checked conditions at my family’s land over the weekend; there is enough surface soil moisture from snowmelt for successful seeding and germination, but with no subsoil moisture reserves crop growth will depend on sufficient rainfall in June and early July.

    For a broader view, here is the current drought map for the key grain growing areas in western Canada:

  3. says

    @Katydid – It’s a good point. Insect die-offs won’t have a direct effect on wind-pollinated crops like wheat, but the best indoor farm models I’ve seen include beehives as part of the infrastructure, to pollinate and generate honey.

    That said, that does nothing for the wild bees and other insects that are so crucial to our ecosystems. I honestly don’t know if there’s much we can realistically do about that beyond dealing with the roots of the problem. Even doing something like converting malls into indoor “habitats” to conserve species seems like an iffy proposition at best, so I think we’re stuck with ecosystem stewardship the slow, hard way.

    @planter – You’re more than welcome. I’ve long since given up on being a “climate news blog”, but I try to highlight stuff that I think is important. And thank you for your contribution. There’s a pattern emerging in my readership of people adding their own perspective and experience in a way that I think gives a deeper perspective on what’s going on. I think that might be my favorite part about y’all.

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